This season can be a stressful time for anybody. Financial stress alone can be a heavy burden, not to mention the socio-political issues and complex feelings some have around the holidays. And on top of all that, visiting family feels almost like a non-negotiable event for many of us. But we live in a very divided time; generational and political differences can be very stark. Family gatherings during the holiday can force those people to clash against each other and cause anger and bitterness.
Setting boundaries is a way of protecting yourself and your well-being first. However, society and much of our media can portray that as selfish, that we need to put others and their feelings first. Knowing that you’ve disappointed someone you care about feels terrible. Unhealthy family dynamics often lead to enmeshment where boundaries just don’t exist, and trying to set some can lead to guilt-tripping and gaslighting.
Even those who have a more stable and positive relationship with their family can struggle to set boundaries. I’ve moved twice in recent years and have been fortunate to have the help of my family each time. In the vocabulary of Marie Kondo, however, my parents and I find joy in very different things. The first time I moved, my parents helped me pack and kept talking about “being brutal” and getting rid of things I didn’t need… Specifically about something that had value to me. But they didn’t even hesitate packing up the three oversized fruit bowls and decorative towels they handed down to me over the years. As I was unpacking after the first move, all of those things got donated. They did not help me pack or unpack this most recent time. I made my decision very casual, and my parents barely commented on it, but that doesn’t mean guilt didn’t slip in. My parents were just trying to help, and I’m lucky that I have such a positive relationship with them. But setting boundaries can help keep that relationship stable. Setting my boundaries helped squash any disagreement that would have come up that may have resulted in frustration for my parents and resentment from me.
See if you can find out who’s coming and identify if you have any allies on the guestlist. Finding someone who will back you up when you change the subject can help relieve some of the pressure on you. Having a plan to escape, like excusing yourself to the bathroom or assisting in the kitchen, can also be an effective tactic. An ally can then find ways to let you know when the conversation has moved to safer grounds. Remember to make sure they feel comfortable helping in that situation, so you don’t overstep their boundaries. If you feel decently comfortable with all the guests, you can offer a silly codeword for everybody to use when they think the conversation is getting too heavy. Be sure to agree on this strategy and the word beforehand. For example you could say, “I want to make sure everyone has a fun and pleasant holiday so if we get on a topic that can start an argument someone should shout out ‘Banana’ and that means we need to move on.”
Knowing who is coming can also help you figure out what topics may come up in conversation. You can take some time to script out some responses to try and diffuse the conversations as they come up. Practice using “I” rather than “you” statements. Instead of saying: “you’re making me uncomfortable by talking about this,” try: “I feel uncomfortable when this topic is brought up.” It seems like a minor difference, but it could get better results. A “you” statement can come across as accusatory and cause some people to react defensively and dig their heels in when you try to change the subject. Instead, you’re putting the focus on how their actions affect you. It removes the feeling of blame while still highlighting the results of the action. In addition avoiding absolute language such as “always” statements (you always take her side) and “never” statements (you never think about anyone else but yourself). These statements can take away from the main point and feelings, causing the conversation to switch to finding examples that discredit that statement.
The unfortunate reality is that you may be on your own. Some members of your family may be too stubborn to talk down or just uncaring of your feelings. You can set out your boundaries directly and the consequences of crossing them if you need, and they may disregard them. If that happens and you feel you need to leave, do so. Negative reactions may happen; anger at your follow through, blame for ruining the holidays, manipulation to stay by appealing to a sense of family or the holidays. However, it is important to remember you deserve a happy holiday as well. The boundaries are there to work for you. They are to keep you safe and healthy. Putting yourself first isn’t something to be ashamed of.
In the wise words of the late and great Ruth Bader Ginsberg, “speak your mind. Even if your voice shakes.”
Design for Change Recovery Staff. (2020, August 29). Why setting boundaries in recovery is important. Design for Change. Retrieved November 18, 2021, from https://designforchangerecovery.com/blog/happens-start-setting-boundaries/.
Team Tony. (2021, January 15). The importance of "I-statements" In relationships: Tony Robbins. tonyrobbins.com. Retrieved November 18, 2021, from https://www.tonyrobbins.com/love-relationships/words-matter-you-vs-i/.
Selva, J. (2021, September 13). How to set healthy boundaries: 10 examples + PDF worksheets. PositivePsychology.com. Retrieved November 18, 2021, from https://positivepsychology.com/great-self-care-setting-healt
Tayler Clark, MSW, LCSW, Founder of Nova MHS.
Tayler works along side Marissa to make sure that the information provided reflects the practice and our values as well as provides accurate and up to date information. Tayler also acts as a general editor for the blog.