The holidays are a time when many families come together. And while this can bring a lot of joy, it can also be a complex emotional time. Juggling dynamics with extended family, navigating relationships that have challenging histories, or even just trying to establish new expectations with those who have always known us to tolerate certain behaviours can all be really difficult. Learning to set and maintain boundaries with family is an important skill to develop. And one that will positively transfer to other areas of your life.
What Are Boundaries?
Let’s start by talking about what boundaries actually are. Boundaries are expectations you put into place related to how you want to be treated in relationships in order for you to feel comfortable and safe.
Oftentimes, we unknowingly take on the boundaries that were established in our families when we were growing up. In this instance, we have let others identify what our boundaries should be. Rather than us determining what boundaries actually support us as we are today.
When we get clear on what our boundaries are in different relationships, how we’re going to communicate those and how we’re going to respond if they are not respected, it significantly reduces our anxiety of how to handle those difficult situations that may arise in gatherings with family.
How To Identify Your Boundaries
First, you need to identify how you want to be treated by others. What are those situations that arise in family gatherings that leave you feeling undervalued, disrespected or even just uncomfortable. I would recommend taking some time to really reflect on this. Try journaling about the following questions and seeing what comes out of that:
- How were boundaries taught in your family? Who in your family do you believe will be receptive to you setting boundaries and who might be less receptive.
- How do you feel about setting boundaries with your family?
- What situations/conversations/interactions do you find yourself dreading when you think about getting together with family for the holidays?
- Name two boundaries that you’d like to implement with your family.
Before we move into communicating our boundaries, we need to first get really clear on how we want to be treated.
Communicating Your Boundaries
First – be clear.
Sometimes when we are feeling uncomfortable or nervous about communicating something, we over-explain. Or feel the need to justify what it is we want. But that can actually be counter-productive as too much communication winds up diluting the message we want them to hear. Consider what your desire or need is and then think about the simplest way to communicate that.
Second – state your need or request, or say no.
When you go to state your boundary, don’t just communicate what you dislike; rather, you need to communicate what you need or want. It’s important that you teach people how you want to be treated. Oftentimes, they don’t know or even recognize that you have a need. It’s your responsibility to be clear on these things.
A helpful approach to communicating a boundary is to use “I-statements”. “I-statements” centre you in the boundary setting rather than centre the other person, which in turn can leave the person feeling defensive.
A few examples of I-statement in action:
- When your mother gossips to you about your sister’s new boyfriend.
“I don’t feel comfortable talking about him. I really want to try and make him feel welcome today.”
- When your extended family member asks why you didn’t bring a date to dinner.
“I don’t want to talk about my dating life today.”
- When your family member invites you to something and you don’t want to go.
“I appreciate the invite but I’m going to sit this one out.”
Some Ideas for setting boundaries with family
Sometimes it can be difficult to come up with boundary-setting language, particularly if you’ve not had a lot of practice. Here are some pre-written phrases that you can take and adapt for your own situations.
- “I know you mean well, but I don’t want your input on how I parent my kids.”
- “We’ll come for dinner but we need to leave by 8pm.”
- “I’m bringing a date but I don’t want you to make any comments about marriage or kids.”
- “I won’t be able to make it.”
- “Please call before you stop by.”
- “We’ve decided that due to the restrictions around COVID that we’ll be sitting this year’s gathering out.”
- “It makes me uncomfortable when you get drunk. If that happens, we’ll have to leave.”
- “We don’t want any toys given to our kids this year, if you want to get them something I’d love for it to be an experience you can do with them.”
- “I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed, I’m going to go for a short walk by myself and I’ll be back in a bit.”
- “I’m not comfortable talking about this. Let’s change the subject.”
How to Maintain Your Boundaries With Family After You’ve Set Them
When you first begin to set boundaries, some people will be totally respectful of them and receive them well. Whereas, others may be uncomfortable that you’re beginning to establish new expectations in your relationship with them. The most important thing in beginning to establish boundaries with others is to follow through with the boundary you’ve set. If you set a boundary and then give in, it will teach others that you aren’t serious about your boundaries. Oftentimes, those in your life may try to push the envelope to see where they can get you to bend. It may take you communicating and maintaining the boundary a number of times before they realize you’re serious and you intend to follow through.
A helpful note in setting boundaries is to know that you will likely feel guilty and uncomfortable when setting boundaries, especially if this is a new skill. Setting boundaries is a muscle that needs to be exercised and when first starting, it can feel very uncomfortable. It’s helpful to recognize that discomfort does not mean something is wrong or bad. Discomfort is human and the more we lean into that feeling and learn to sit with it, the easier it will become.
Create A Self Care Plan
It might be helpful to come up with a self-care plan for when you first begin to set and maintain boundaries and you’re left feeling guilty about it. Remind yourself that you have not done anything wrong. Then take time to nurture yourself in whatever way feels comforting to you is a healthy practice and way of managing those feelings. That might look like planning something to look forward to after a hard phone call where you’re communicating some boundaries. Or it might look like doing something that soothes you. This allows you to take space to move through the difficult emotion that setting a boundary brought up. A few ideas could be: taking a walk outside, a bath, deep breaths, journaling frustrations. This post I wrote on how to cultivate rest during the holidays has some helpful ideas for caring for ourselves this of year.
Oftentimes when someone begins to feel guilt for a boundary they’ve established, they soften the boundary. This leaves people thinking that your boundaries are optional or are able to be pushed back to what they want. The most important thing in boundary setting is to follow through and hold it.