The holiday season is often a time that’s expected to be surrounded by family.
While creating and spending time with chosen family is valid and vital for many, blood relatives have become the default when the winter season rolls around.
For some, the idea of spending tons of time with the family you grew up with brings immense joy. You may have fond memories to look back on or choose to take advantage of your time off by flying out to visit extended family members that you may not see as often.
For others, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with family may lead to feelings that are a mixed bag, at best.
Plenty of us have had to navigate uninvited questions or commentary, debates about subjects we aren’t comfortable with, or others’ difficulty in accepting shifts and changes — be it in the world or to how we understand ourselves.
The truth is, sometimes those we care about most can elicit negative reactions.
We spoke with Taish Malone, PhD, LPC with Mindpath Health and Renetta Weaver, Maryland-based LCSW, about boundary setting.
They shared their insight on the importance of creating boundaries and how to do so in a way that honors your needs.
“Those who are the closest to us have the greatest impact on our moods in general, mainly because we are more likely to care about their opinions of us and are even more mindful of the way we behave around them,” Malone says.
For folks who may have complex family dynamics but don’t want to crop them out completely when the holidays roll around, setting boundaries may be the missing piece.
Boundaries are lines or parameters that you create for your safety — whether it’s emotional, sexual, physical, or otherwise.
Malone says that if you find yourself feeling overwhelmed, agitated, avoidant or even sad in certain situations connected to others, it could be due to an unmet need or a crossed boundary.
“Boundaries are one of the key ingredients to healthy relationships. Boundaries are important because they teach people how to treat us and what to expect from us,” Weaver says.
“Boundaries communicate safety and security.”
Despite the potential of uncomfortable or tough situations, there may be people or circumstances that you’re willing to navigate around.
But, that’s not always the case, and our experts agree that saying no is always an option.
“If being around your family causes you anxiety, you can make a choice to limit your interaction with them or not interact with them at all,” says Weaver.
“There is no rule that says you have to suffer at the hands of anyone, even if it’s your family.”
This is a choice that only you can make. If you feel outside pressure that conflicts with what you want or need, it could be worth considering if your boundary should include opting out of sharing space with that person or attending that event.
“Take moments to have time to yourself and to process what is happening and what you are feeling. As mentioned before, if certain gatherings are not in your best interest, it might be best to miss them all together,” Malone says.
“Prioritizing your feelings is understanding your emotional limitations and respecting them.”
If you think that a boundary should be a hard line that separates you from another person or situation completely, here are a few questions to consider:
- Am I doing this because I feel like I should, or because I actively want to?
- Is my desire connected to fear of what will happen if I say no?
- Is it just easier to attend than to deal with the questions or negative commentary if I don’t?
- Will the time spent in space with this person be worth the impact on my mental health?
Depending on how you honestly answer these questions and assess how you’re feeling, maybe skipping the big family dinner is the best option — and that’s okay.
Because everyone is different, there’s no set rule for how to initiate a conversation about boundaries.
Below are helpful tips to consider:
Be aware of emotions
Frustration and anger when bringing up heavy topics, especially when connected to long-term hurt, is normal.
Malone reminds us that regardless of how valid your feelings and perspectives are, it’s important to understand that the opposite side has them as well.
Similar to how you want to be heard and understood, approaching a conversation with the intent of both sharing and listening can aid in everyone feeling heard and respected, adding to the potential of an initial conversation going smoother.
“When words are said in anger or in aggressive blaming ways, others tend to focus on the emotions and tone more than the message and therefore miss the entire point.”
If you’ve determined that your goal is to set boundaries with the goal of mending and maintaining relationships, then taking the necessary time prior to sharing those feelings could be beneficial to effective communication.
Consider doing a breathing exercise prior to kicking off a conversation about boundaries, even if it’s just over text message. If you’re feeling stirred during a conversation, take a beat to breathe deeply before responding.
This can help you re-center your own feelings and emotions, aiding you in communicating more effectively.
“There is a difference between reacting when you feel activated versus responding from a regulated nervous system…when our nervous system is dysregulated, simply using a breathing technique can help shift it from our feeling to thinking brain,” Weaver says.
“When we are in our feelings, we say and do things that we regret or don’t say all we need to say. When we operate from our thinking brain our words we can better express ourselves.”
Holding yourself accountable
Weaver says the work of setting boundaries begins internally by way of identifying your values.
Once you’ve done that, you can move forward with decision-making around the holidays. Then you can spend time with others by asking yourself if your choice aligns with your values.
“The decisions you make are not about protecting someone else’s feelings, they are about prioritizing your emotional-well being,” Weaver says.
“Your values are your inner compass that will keep you on track and keep your emotional well-being intact.”
According to Malone, the internal work on your end can include:
- Respecting the boundaries of others
- Not setting boundaries as a way of control
- Developing self-awareness (which includes intentions)
- Encouraging healthy connections with others
- Being open to evolving or modifying boundaries if appropriate
- Being willing to compromise/collaborate (not to be confused with conceding)
It’s important to note that if your safety is threatened, it’s okay not to leave room for compromise.
If you don’t feel like speaking about your boundaries face-to-face is the best option, think about ways you and this person generally communicate.
Should you give them a call over the phone? Can you schedule a Zoom meeting?
Sometimes the concern around sharing your boundaries is whether you’ll have the opportunity to say everything you need to.
Weaver suggests finding ways to get out all of your thoughts at once. This could be through mediums like writing your thoughts and feelings down in a letter or recording a voice note or video, and then sending them out.
Talk to one person at a time
If you have a perspective that seems to be isolated, it’s easy to feel alone or ganged up on.
Malone and Weaver both blame some of this experience on the idea of “group think” or family systems.
This is where folks fall into a singular pattern of thinking or lean into “assigned roles” within a group or family, making it difficult to stray from what’s expected.
“Family systems theory teaches us that people take on different roles within the family system…If you are the only one that speaks up or has an opinion you are the scapegoat,” says Weaver.
To tackle this, try speaking to one person at a time rather than approaching the entire family or group all at once.
How you choose to enforce and reiterate your boundaries is up to you.
Malone suggests three potential stages of reiteration after setting boundaries:
Reiteration with grace
“This is used after you have taken the time to clearly state your boundary expectations, needs, and or wants,” Malone says, saying that this state is for reminders alongside understanding.
The “grace” in this suggestion points to room for error. Maybe they’re someone who needs time to adjust or more conversation to fully understand what may feel like a shift.
“Change… is hard because it requires us to change and adapt to a new normal. We have to learn a new way of speaking and doing and that will come with some struggles,” Weaver says.
An example of this could be simply starting a reminder off with, “I know I’ve just recently shared my feelings with you,” or asking “Do you have any questions about what I asked you last week?”
Reiteration with a warning
After you’ve offered a stage of understanding or “grace,” Malone suggests offering reminders of what consequences are if boundaries are not respected. An example could look like:
“We’ve talked about how those questions make me uncomfortable, so I’m going to take a break from coming to Sunday brunch if you’re not willing to stop like I’ve asked.”
This stage includes taking further action if your boundaries are continually crossed, despite your direct communication.
“The further down the stages you get, the less likely you should be to either defend or explain your reasons for setting such expectations,” Malone says.
Consequences can range, including skipping that holiday meal or Black Friday shopping trip entirely. You could also change the topic at hand rather than responding or get up and walk away when you feel uncomfortable.
Entering the consequence portion of enforcing boundaries can be difficult, but this is the time to remember that you created them for your own safety and best interest.
“It is our right to be comfortable and to feel secure,” Malone says.
Not everyone is open to change
Regardless of your chosen method for communication or reinforcement, it’s important to remember that you are not responsible for the outcome.
“Their reaction is their reaction.” says Weaver, reminding us that we can’t control anyone but ourselves and all we can do after someone responds is let it inform how we proceed.
“…just because you decided to make a change doesn’t mean everyone is going to be happy with that. Many people are resistant towards your changes because that means they will have to change too.” Weaver says.
Building up the courage to speak candidly about how you feel just to be ignored or shut down can be hurtful.
“I have found that people understand action above all else,” Malone says.
“If there is a person that has violated you countless times or in unforgivable ways, you may wish to decide if you should attend certain functions that involve them at all.”
When introduced to a new concept, or met with a boundary that we may not quite understand, sometimes our initial reaction is to provide pushback.
If you find yourself getting defensive, take a moment to remember that if someone is communicating what they need from you, this is an effort to continue in the relationship.
“Family means a great deal to many of us, so setting boundaries with them must take into account that you wish to maintain a positive relationship with them for the most part,” says Malone.
“If someone has expressed a boundary to you, realize that they have grown to this point for a reason, and that it is often very courageous to set a boundary with others.”
You may feel like someone is being critical of you, or maybe you’re feeling sensitive to people being upset in your direction.
Consider taking a moment to breathe. Do your best not to just prepare your response when someone’s speaking.
Instead, actively listen to what they’re saying. Malone suggests trying to:
- detach from taking it personally
- consider their perspective
- listen for their hidden needs and or feelings that are attached
- be open to growing towards a compromise with them
Change can be scary, especially when it’s connected to someone we care deeply about.
Because of that care, doing your best to support someone in the way they’ve said they need is important, regardless of how you may initially feel about it.”
“We should encourage their journey to seek to find themselves and therefore be supportive in whatever way that looks for them. We are placed in each other’s lives to complement and support them,” Malone says.
“Forgive yourself for any abuse you tolerated in the past and communicate clear boundaries that you will not accept disrespect in your life anymore,” Weaver says.
Approaching conversations around difficult subjects around the holidays can be hard, but this is a reminder that communicating your boundaries is an important step in taking care of yourself and creating healthy, lasting relationships.
Ready for a calm and stress-free holiday? Check out Healthline’s Season of Self-Care, your go-to destination for the latest must-have health and wellness gifts for your loved ones – and you!