'Tis the season for celebration, reflection, and connecting with family. For some, however, the holidays represent a season of stress, overwhelm, and negative emotions. Arming yourself with some tools from your mental health toolbox can help ease the tension, or just plain stress, that often accompanies the holiday season. Either way, you can protect your energy and emotions by giving yourself the gift of setting boundaries!
Spending time with family you don't usually see often can trigger uncomfortable family dynamics or trauma during the holiday season. Whether it is the aunt who talks too close and loud in your space or the family members who still view you as the child you were twenty years ago or even overwhelm from the change in schedule and expectations, setting healthy personal boundaries will help you enjoy the holiday spirit while maintaining sanity.
Boundaries are limits we set for ourselves and for our interpersonal relationships. They are hard lines of what we accept or don't accept. A person with healthy boundaries does not have trouble saying "no," calling someone out for inappropriate behavior, or expressing their needs without guilt. Finding your limitations and boundary setting is a personal thing and can take practice! Too rigid of boundaries results in isolation and a hesitance to ask for help when needed. Too loose of boundaries results in the inability to say "no," sacrificing personal needs to please, and overwhelming oneself to the point of mental exhaustion.
Setting boundaries for the first time can feel uncomfortable, especially if you previously had none or very loose boundaries. Boundaries can feel selfish or mean at first. Still, setting boundaries is a powerful act of self-care and sets you free within your relationships. When you don't establish boundaries for how you operate in relationships, people will push your limits, causing you to feel uncomfortable, frustrated, angry, and sending you into a self-blame cycle. But, if you haven't understood your own needs or haven't been able to set boundaries previously, people can't respect those needs because they don't know them! So when you begin to set boundaries, it's okay if it is a bit of a learning process for yourself and others.
Boundaries are not easy to uphold or express to those who we love and with whom we have an established dynamic. Around the holidays, we may feel the need to seek approval from older family members, feel bound to do things the same way we do every year, or try not to rock the boat by acting or expressing ourselves in a manner outside of the usual traditions. However, you have the right to change things that make you uncomfortable, and you will get more confident as time goes on! This holiday season, whether you are a pro-boundary-setter or new to the idea, here are a few ways to set healthy boundaries to limit your stress, decrease overwhelm and inspire comfort and joy during the holidays:
Yes, literally, say the word "no." It can feel uncomfortable, harsh, or short, but it is a complete sentence and a powerful boundary. Reach out to your partner or support systems to help you say no to the things that don't work for you and practice self-compassion. It's okay and vital to say no.
Express yourself clearly.
Using phrases like "I might not have time to…" or "I don't know if I will be able to…" opens the doors for negotiation and expectations. Be clear about what you can and cannot do. For example, if a family member asks if you can make the same fantastic pie that you made last year, but it requires a weeks worth of prep, your schedule is unable to accommodate for the task, or you just plain don't have it in you this year to do so - try to say something like, "Unfortunately, I am not able to make the pie this year." It might feel uncomfortable, but that's okay! Discomfort often means that you are growing.
Practice firmness with empathy.
If you are unable to accommodate a request from someone, whether that be attending the holiday dinner or making a dish, try using phrases like "Unfortunately, I won't be able to attend," or "That sounds so fun, but I can't make it." Saying no to a request in this manner lets you communicate a rejection with empathy by acknowledging the disappointment of the other party while providing clear communication.
Check-in with yourself, early and often.
Be sure to stop and ask yourself, "how do I feel about spending time with this person?" or "am I comfortable in this space?" or "Do I have the energy to do this this week?" Be honest with yourself about your ability and aptitude to meet expectations in a whole-hearted way. Be mindful of how certain places, people, and obligations line up with your values. Use this feedback to make a thoughtful decision about what is best for you. Remember, your energy is precious, and you can't pour from an empty cup.
Say how you feel.
What is an appropriate word that describes how you feel? It can be helpful to express what you feel and the cause for that feeling. For example, if your Uncle Joe always comments on your weight and it upsets you. Tell him how you feel (i.e., I feel angry when you do that, it frustrates me when you do this, etc.) using an "I" statement. Be sure not to criticize the person's behavior. Criticism breeds defensiveness, whereas clearly expressing the behavior and how it makes you feel leaves room for the person to understand how their actions impact you. And if you aren't able to express your feelings immediately, remember: practice self-compassion and know you can always walk away.
Say what you need.
Now that you have expressed how you feel, follow up by clearly defining what you need. For example, "Uncle Joe, please don't do that anymore." Saying what you need draws a clear line as to what behavior you will and will not accept. If the behavior continues, you can continue to state your needs, and if it continues after that, you have every right to leave or ask them to leave.
Show up as your adult self.
It is challenging to break years of the family dynamic, and the 13-year-old in you may still seek approval and feel it's not your place to speak up. When this manifests, it's important to pull yourself back and remember that you are an adult and the adult is in attendance. Keeping this front of mind helps set a clear boundary for others who still treat you as if you haven't aged since thirteen. Remember who you are outside of these family dynamics. Picture your school, work, or home life outside of this moment and make sure that person is the one who shows up to the event.
You are deserving and worthy of a holiday season that brings you peace. Healthy boundaries are the first step, and the change in dynamics of your relationships will follow.
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