The holidays are upon us once again and for so many people that brings along feelings of stress, dread, sadness, anxiety, and isolation. What is considered by some to be the most wonderful time of the year is also a time when mental health struggles peak, unhealed traumas are triggered, and the dysfunctional family unit is magnified. So, while much of the focus on having a healthy holiday is centered around food and exercise, how can we also focus on having a healthy holiday season for our emotional and mental state?
The term “boundaries” has become a popular word, almost to the point of overuse, and also tends to conjure confusion and frustration from both the people trying to implement them to the ones on the receiving end.
So what are boundaries in relationships?
Simply put, boundaries are guidelines an individual determines for themselves that dictate how they want to be treated, what types of interactions they are willing to engage in and with whom, they help an individual establish their own identity separate from others, and allow one to take responsibility for their actions while not feeling violated, manipulated, or mistreated by the actions of others (Cloud and Townsend, 1992).
Boundaries can be physical or emotional in nature or even be related to your resources like your time and money, and can be implemented in professional, interpersonal, and intimate relationships (LePera, 2021).
Boundaries can also be complicated, confusing, and difficult for many reasons. The most common reasons are because someone was conditioned from childhood from caregivers who did not model healthy boundaries; someone is trying to make a change within an established (often unhealthy) relationship and made to feel guilty or that they are being selfish or unloving; there is a difference in power within the relationship (someone can leverage something over the other person); or someone was raised within a specific culture or religion that dictates behavior (LePera, 2021).
So how do you implement boundaries to protect your emotional and mental state for the holidays?
The first step is defining your boundaries: What behaviors from others are you okay with, and what is not acceptable? (Boundaries, 20017). For many, this is difficult and may take time and self-awareness within your body to notice when something or someone is leaving you feeling emotionally drained, chaotic, manipulated, hurt, fearful, or resentful. Explore your relational patterns and make note of recurring themes. It may help to make a list of what you are and are not comfortable with for physical, emotional/mental, and resource boundaries. Notice which ones are most consistently crossed or if you have them at all. Then begin to explore what kind of changes you would like to see in these areas. It might be helpful to use the following prompt or something similar:
My __________ (insert your physical self, emotional/mental self, resources) feels uncomfortable/unsafe when: _________. To create space for my (physical, emotional/mental, resources) to feel more comfortable/safe, I __________ (insert what you need) (LePera, 2021).
The second step after determining what your boundaries are is to establish consequences for if a boundary is crossed.
Example: “If you continue to make comments about my weight, I will remove myself from the conversation or activity we are engaging in.”
And the third step is communicating your boundaries to the other person/s clearly and assertively (LePera, 2021; Cloud & Townsend, 1992). It is helpful to practice beforehand and start small. Practicing on people who are supportive or on topics that don’t have a heavy cost can help you become more comfortable for more difficult interactions. It is also important to remember to self-soothe and practice grounding before, during, and after to calm any nervous system activation that may occur from the stress.
When trying to establish boundaries for the first time it can often be difficult for the person/s on the receiving end to accept (especially if they have trouble with poor boundaries themselves). This may look like them arguing against your boundaries, demeaning or belittling your boundaries, or ignoring your boundaries completely (Cloud & Townsend, 1992). It takes time and consistent, firm reminders what your boundaries are and what the consequences are for violating them. Establishing boundaries might also be difficult for the person trying to establish them, especially if you have attachment wounds and fears around abandonment (LePera, 2021). It may be scary at first, and may result in the impulse to pull back or return to old patterns, but consistency and follow-through are key to forging a new and healthier relationship.
It is important to remember that boundaries are not ultimatums or threats and are not selfish, but rather are crucial to ALL healthy relationships and maintaining your well-being. You can have boundaries and still be respectful, loving, and gentle.
Use the following model or something similar to practice setting boundaries:
“I am making some changes so that [insert your intention for your new boundary] and hope you can understand that this is important to me. I imagine [insert your understanding of their behavior]. When you [insert the problematic behavior], I often feel [insert your feelings], and I understand that this is something you may not be aware of. In the future, [insert what you would or would not like to happen again]. If [insert the original problematic behavior] happens again, I will [insert how you will respond differently to meet your own need].” (LePera, 2021).
Examples of implementing your boundaries:
That is a personal matter that I prefer to keep private and not discuss, please don’t ask about that again.
My answer hasn’t changed—if it does, I will let you know.
I do not have time in my schedule for that right now.
I know you said that was a joke, but that was hurtful, and I didn’t appreciate it.
I know you are speaking from your perspective, but I would prefer if you would just support me by listening rather than telling me what to do.
Examples of violating our own boundaries:
We don’t communicate our needs or expectations with others
We say “yes” to more than we can realistically handle
We feel forced into revealing personal information that we are not comfortable sharing
We don’t express our concern when something important matters to us
We don’t speak up when we feel hurt or treated poorly
We don’t let others know when our boundaries have been violated or we are not consistent with consequences
We are afraid to say “No”
We hide, invalidate, or suppress our emotions
We stay in relationships that are no longer healthy, safe, or emotionally rewarding
We carry emotional “baggage” that does not belong to us
We expect people to read our mind or guess how we feel instead of stating our needs or feelings directly
We avoid conflict, “keep the peace” in hopes that things will just get better
We excuse unhealthy behavior because we love someone, or because they are family
We repeatedly try to get someone to change when they are not ready
We Over-explain ourselves to try and get understanding or approval from someone who does not
You've got this. We've got this. Happy healthy holidays!
Karen McKinney, LCMHCA
Boundaries. (2017). Retrieved from https://Goodtherapy.org.
Cloud, H., & Townsend, J. S. (1992). Boundaries: When to say yes, when to say no, to take control of your life. Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI.
LePera, Nicole. (2021). How to do the work: recognize your patterns, heal from your past, and create your self. HarperCollins Publishers, New York, NY.
This information is generalized and intended for educational purposes only. Due to potential individual contraindications, please see your primary care provider before implementing any strategies in these posts.