Living with chronic illness means even the most joyful holidays can bring extra work when it comes to managing our health needs and our personal and familial expectations.
This is where having a clear understanding of our own boundaries can come in handy.
Boundaries are how we take care of ourselves and show others how to take care of us, too.
When living with a health challenge of any kind, understanding and exploring our evolving needs becomes even more imperative, because our bodies need us to care for them especially well.
Doing the regular work of reassessing our present-day boundaries has a tremendous positive impact on maintaining healthy relationships with ourselves and the people in our lives.
As we approach this holiday season, I invite you to join me for some reflection on your needs and boundaries ahead of time, so you can move toward this special time of year feeling clear and prepared.
Some of us feel pressure to “keep up” energetically with our loved ones who aren’t living with chronic illness, and that pressure can lead us to disconnect from our needs and breach our own boundaries.
Remember that your ability to show up and be present isn’t just about your level of commitment to your family — it’s also connected to your body’s ability to engage for short or long periods of time.
Whether you’re traveling to visit with loved ones during the holidays, or you’re simply video chatting with them more frequently during this festive time, it pays to be especially generous toward yourself and your body in planning for extra rest.
This is important for a couple of reasons:
First, travel itself can be exhausting, so scheduling in transition periods is key.
Even if you’re going for a day trip, there’s a transition involved in getting ready, traveling, arriving, and acclimating to your new environment.
Keep in mind that your body goes through a lot when you travel, so give yourself plenty of time and space to recover.
Second, we spend more energy when we’re engaging with people, even those we love (and even if it’s “just” online).
It takes energy to play and goof around with your favorite kiddos, and it takes energy to tune in for meaningful, and even light, conversation.
When you organize your expectations and plan for more rest than usual, you’re less likely to give yourself a hard time for not “measuring up” energy-wise.
Whether you decide to send a thoughtful group email, or have individual conversations with a few key people, being clear about your needs ahead of time can help everyone support you.
This could look like:
- sharing dietary parameters
- setting up expectations around your participation in family interactions
- asking for any accommodations that will make a difference in your ability to participate in gatherings with more comfort and ease
- telling your family what questions you’d love them to ask, or not ask, about your health
What’s most valuable about this “heads up” approach to communication is that it lays the groundwork for you to get your needs met, and for your loved ones to get concrete examples of how they can be supportive without having to guess.
It can be empowering for you and for them.
Sometimes, communicating directly with folks about your needs may feel like a challenge. Keep in mind that speaking up for your needs is not selfish and actually promotes strong relationships.
Example talking points
Here are some examples of nurturing your connection with your loved ones while asking for what you need:
- “Because my immune system needs to be protected right now, I can’t risk meeting up with the family this year. I’m heartbroken because of how much I want to see all of you. Can we make time for some Zoom celebrations?”
- “I’ve always loved your special holiday stuffing, and I’m bummed that this year I’m not able to eat it because of the gluten. This is a change I’ve made in my diet to support my health. I wanted to give you a heads up in case you wonder why I’m not eating it like I usually do.”
- “Last year, folks had questions about my recent bone scans during our family time together. I know everyone is curious because you all care about me. I’ve realized that I’d rather be the one to bring that sort of stuff up with the group. Would you be willing to hold off on questions this year, or speak with me one-on-one at a different time?”
- “I’m not sure how to talk to my nieces about their questions about my health. Could we chat about it sometime before I visit?”
- “Even though I love cooking, it takes me more time and energy to prepare homemade dishes than it used to. This year, I’ll need to bring something store-bought or just come early and keep you company while you cook.”
Many of us try to hide our health needs and experiences so that our relationships feel as smooth, easy, and “normal” as possible.
The truth is, our health challenges are normal for us, even though we may not have chosen them.
Keep in mind that what you’re managing is just as real and important as anything your loved ones manage — chronic illness or not.
You get to choose how much or little you share with your friends and family. That will always be your decision. That’s the beauty of knowing your own boundaries!
I also invite you to consider where your boundaries may be more solid than is serving you, and where you’re open to giving them more flexibility.
In many cases, I’ve witnessed how being “real” with our loved ones about health challenges can actually strengthen relationships through increasing emotional intimacy.
One of my favorite ways to open up more with friends and family is what I call giving them VIP “behind-the-scenes” access.
I like to imagine pulling back a curtain that allows people to see more than just what’s “on stage” (what we choose to reveal to the world), giving them a sense of the in-the-moment experience we’re having “backstage” (in our internal world).
Example talking points
Here are some examples of how you might share what’s behind the curtain in your world:
- “I just told our uncle that I can’t eat meat anymore because of my health condition and I’m feeling awkward about it.”
- “Do you want to see how I check my blood sugar? It’s actually pretty cool.”
- “Sometimes I want to talk to you about my health stuff, but I hold back because I’m worried you’ll think of me differently. Actually, it helps to even tell you that.”
- “I have some tough news about my prognosis that I’ve been keeping from the family so we can just enjoy the holidays. I really don’t want to ruin your holiday, but I also don’t want to hold this all by myself.”
Please remember that you’re not meant to live your journey with chronic illness alone.
As imperfect as your experiences may feel, they’re also a point of connection with those who deeply care about you. It may be worth taking a loving risk to let your favorite people get to know you even better.
Boundaries are important for maintaining caring relationships with ourselves and the people we love.
You will always be the person who most understands what you need — and it’s up to you to trust and support yourself in making those boundaries known.
And you get to change your mind! Keep in touch with yourself and your intuition, and let yourself evolve and shift as needed.
Chronic illness calls for even more clarity and advocacy for our needs. I hope this holiday season is filled with supportive communication with your loved ones, a deepening of your relationships with yourself and with them, and time for grace and gentleness around your bandwidth and needs.
Lauren Selfridge is a licensed marriage and family therapist in California, working online with people living with chronic illness as well as couples. She hosts the interview podcast, “This Is Not What I Ordered,” focused on full-hearted living with chronic illness and health challenges. Lauren has lived with relapsing remitting multiple sclerosis for over 5 years and has experienced her share of joyful and challenging moments along the way. You can learn more about Lauren’s work here, or follow her and her podcast on Instagram.