Rebecca Parks, MA, LMFT Associate
Supervised by Cristy Ragland, MA, LPC-S, LMFT-S, RPT-S™
While the holidays may be a joyous time with family and friends for some, for many of us this season brings significant stress, anxiety, and relational conflict. Holidays, often, cause us to engage with uncomfortable relational dynamics in our family of origin that have probably existed for years, if not decades, of our lives. We may go most of the year being able to avoid or limit contact with family to distance ourselves from these distressing patterns, but when that distance closes during holiday celebrations, we can feel stuck, frozen, or angered by the seemingly never-ending loop of the same-old-same-old baggage.
The strong emotions and/or “stuckness” we experience likely signal the need to take a look at our boundaries. Establishing healthy internal and relational boundaries help us create a sense of felt safety in our nervous systems, so that when we engage in uncomfortable relational dynamics during the holidays, we have a liferaft to hold on to.
If the idea of building better boundaries overwhelms you, that makes so much sense. Setting boundaries with others is hard and can be extremely awkward! First, let’s take some *deep breaths*. Next, let’s break down what boundaries are, how we can ease into them, and how to make them less scary:
1. What are “good” boundaries?
Healthy boundaries are those that help us remain in difficult relationships with a greater sense of authentic self and safety.
There is a common misconception about boundaries that they are used to cut-off people we don’t like or disagree with. This is not necessarily true. While there are some situations when cut-off is the most appropriate and safest option, like in an abusive dynamic, most of the time boundaries can be used to grow and improve relationships.
Good boundaries help us do just that. They allow us to advocate for our needs, regain our voice, speak truth, and interrupt harmful cycles. When we feel empowered and protected by our boundaries, we are probably going to be more regulated, empathetic, open, forgiving, and willing to reconcile in relationships. And isn’t this the goal? To feel good about ourselves and be able to repair with others.
2. Building Fences vs. Walls
“Healthy boundaries are not walls. They are gates and fences that allow you to enjoy the beauty of your own garden.” - Lydia Hall
Another feature of “good” boundaries is that they look a lot more like open, white-picket fences, than brick walls or barbed-wire. What do I mean by this?
Brick walls and barbed-wire fences are meant to keep people out. They are primarily defensive and not prone to let others in without a fight, even those who may be trustworthy and safe. Sometimes our boundaries are so impenetrable that open, mutual, and trusting relationships struggle to develop at all.
Likewise, notice that a white-picket fence is still a boundary. Just as it is unhelpful to have impenetrable boundaries, nor is it helpful to not have any boundaries at all. Boundarylessness leads to feeling burnt out, disempowered, and resentful in relationships.
White-picket boundaries, on the other hand, allow us to have healthy separation and protection from others, while remaining open to relationship and growth. With healthy boundaries, we can still draw our lines, while offering the opportunity to grow trust and reconcile relationships.
3. Start with Internal Boundaries
If establishing and verbalizing boundaries to others feels too intimidating a place to begin, then start with internal boundary setting. “Internal boundaries” are commitments we can make to ourselves to increase felt safety in difficult environments. This often happens in the form of self-talk and increasing awareness of default thought patterns we have in response to others’ behaviors.
For example, say your hypercritical mother comes to your house for Thanksgiving dinner, and based on history, you know that she will make endless comments about the cleanliness and decor of your home. Usually, these comments would send you into a mild irritation all day and, eventually, a blind rage by the end of the night. An internal boundary that may be helpful to integrate into your self-talk may sound like, “when she criticizes my home, I will imagine her comments bouncing off of me like a force field and remember how hard I work to create a wonderful gathering for my family”.
These forms of altering our internal thought world can help us stay regulated, open, and compassionate, without ever having to draw a hard line with another person.
4. Small Boundaries First
Internal boundaries are a great place to start, but we still want to be able to advocate for our needs using our voice, when necessary. Give yourself permission and grace to start small. Our brain defaults to thinking of the biggest problems to solve first because they are the most glaring and triggering. Starting with small boundaries and having them successfully honored increases our resiliency and trust that boundaries really do work to improve relationships!
A small boundary may look like asking for a “piece” of change, rather than a holistic change. Example: Instead of demanding from grandparents, “never talk about my child’s weight or body image again”, we can start small with saying something like, “this Christmas, we ask that you not bring attention to what Amy is wearing, since that’s an area of struggle right now. We would love for you to ask Amy about her dance classes, she’s so excited about them!”
What if my boundaries are not honored?
Clear, concise communication about a desired small change will usually produce better results. As these requests are honored, you can offer bigger needs and requests! But what happens when our boundaries are not honored and respected?
Again, clear communication/decision about the impact or consequence of a disrespected boundary is vital. This isn’t cut-off; it’s a natural impact. To remain relational, it is important to balance expressing the impact with vulnerability, while maintaining accountability.
Example: “You used inappropriate language around Amy, and *express impact vulnerably* that was really hurtful to us, after we asked you to be careful with your words. *natural consequence* We are going to have to limit her time at your house to keep that from happening in the future. *you can even express intent to reconcile* If the inappropriate language stops, we can absolutely go back to normal visits.”
There is a way to navigate boundaries, while keeping compassion and connection at the forefront of our minds. It takes hard work and fine-tuning to do, but when we stay connected to the value of relationships in our lives, we remain attuned to our needs and the feelings of others, at the same time. This holiday season, give yourself permission to practice boundaries, whether they are internal or small requests.