Whether you are celebrating Christmas, Hanukah, or neither, and still exchanging gifts, I am sure items like a stylish sweater, newest Apple watch, or latest toys make it to your list. After all, we all have our wish list! While it is undeniable that gifts like these add a little more joy into our unpredictable and uncertain lives during the pandemic, we often don’t think about the gifts we can give each other that would bring more joy to our relationships.
We know that any healthy relationship comes with solid and consistent boundaries. Special times of the year can be an exceptionally difficult time for setting and enforcing healthy boundaries for many reasons. The last thing you may want to do is ruin someone’s birthday or holiday by setting boundaries. During the holidays, you may be accused of being difficult, inconsiderate, or selfish more than you would at other times of the year.
The stakes are so much higher when everyone has gathered around with the intent to “be merry” and “spend quality time.” Not wanting to participate in a family tradition may feel far more overwhelming in this higher-stakes situation. During holidays, it can also be more challenging to have alone time, making it difficult to spend time in private reflection and affirmation.
What is a boundary?
Boundaries are actions we take that communicate to others our wants, needs, and preferences. Firm and respected boundaries are among the most integral parts of any healthy, loving, and supportive relationship. Boundaries are so complex that they can show up anywhere, in any situation or context. For example, when we talk about boundaries, we are thinking of dyads; we are thinking of a relationship between ourselves and one other person. We may be conscious of these boundaries and approach our relationships hoping that the other person will intuit what they are or respect stated boundaries.
We may also uncover a boundary by accident or surprise when one is crossed. At that moment, it may be hard to vocalize or explain a boundary. Still, the goal of a relationship of value is that the other person is willing to receive that information, however messily it might come out.
There are also boundaries you have to set with yourself to attain the quality of life you deserve. You have to be mindful of the boundaries you have with work and leisure activities. You can’t go for hours and hours doing yoga and ignore other tasks. You also can’t go for hours and hours working and ignore to eat, sleep, or rest. Boundaries become something we set with ourselves. They are an essential component of any life of balance and contentment.
That being said, identifying boundaries can be a little tricky, and setting them can be harder still.
Why is it hard to set boundaries:
1) It is hard to set boundaries because they can change at any time:
Our boundaries, meaning what we are comfortable with or what we want at any given moment with any given person in a given situation, can change. Because of this potential for constant change, it can be difficult for people to communicate about them. This can also make it challenging for the people around us to keep track of where the boundary is set at any given time, leading to repeated or adjusted communication about our needs. We start to think that we are too difficult or too needy if our boundaries change. But the fact is, by nature, boundaries are supposed to be individualized to the person, time, and place.
For example, a nickname that someone calls us in private may feel very different when used publicly. Something intended as a term of endearment could reveal intimacy or information that we are not comfortable sharing with others. Further, a nickname that is acceptable around friends and family may not feel appropriate around colleagues. Another example might be a physical boundary: during the pandemic, if we are feeling uncomfortable somehow, we may not want a hug from someone we would normally be happy to embrace.
2) It is hard to set boundaries because you don’t want to hurt other peoples’ feelings:
Here is a universal experience: when you set your boundary, someone will be upset, hurt, or disappointed. And that doesn’t feel good. Most of us don’t wake up in the morning and think to ourselves, “Oh, I can’t wait to hurt my friend’s feelings.” This is something so uncomfortable for most of us that we might do anything and everything to avoid it, including withholding, setting our boundaries, let alone communicating them.
The decision to enforce the boundary at the expense of another’s emotional wellbeing can feel selfish; we may have a negative association with selfish acts that have been reinforced by family, friends, and society, and feel guilt at choosing to prioritize our happiness.
It is important to recognize the discomfort and have a little conversation with ourselves: “how important this boundary is for me? Can I accept that asserting this need might make my friend upset?”
Asking these types of questions can clarify why we have decided to assert a particular boundary in the first place and be prepared to sit with the discomfort of seeing our friend’s negative emotions.
3) It is hard to set boundaries because it leaves you feeling guilty:
When others express feeling let down or sad in response to our boundaries, our initial reaction is to feel guilty, as if we did something wrong. We conclude that setting boundaries is wrong because we feel guilty, and these emotions subsequently affect our behaviors. The continued behavior leads to deeper feelings of frustration and unhappiness as the boundaries are not enforced, and the actions that cross boundaries are continued. As time goes on, we may begin to feel as though we have no right to “speak up” regarding our boundary, as the person will not only respond to having breached this boundary but having been allowed to continue his/her/their behavior for so long!
If our boundaries were not respected in childhood, guilt could be particularly challenging. Most people can remember a time in childhood when someone (usually an adult) made a big show of having hurt feelings because you didn’t want to hug them. If your caretakers did not support this boundary, the association between saying “no” and others’ response was probably guilt or shame. As we grow older, these early incidents can echo in our subconscious, complicating our ability to determine if our current emotion is a response to the situation at hand or if we are accessing a past memory. We may have spent years of our lives in a state of guilt about saying “no” because our earliest experiences reinforced that saying “no” was impolite or hurtful.
4) It is hard to set boundaries because you don’t know your needs:
Setting boundaries starts by identifying your needs, wants, likes, and dislikes. When there is a lack of clarity or insight into your true needs and wants, then you might find yourself either setting boundaries half-heartedly, too late, or never. You may also find out that you have been setting the wrong boundary this whole time because you were not clear about your needs. How can you advocate for yourself when you are not sure where you stand?
Several factors can contribute to a lack of understanding our boundaries: having had our communicated needs neglected throughout our emotional development; ignoring or brushing off discomfort when someone says or does something that makes us uncomfortable; a lack of reflection on our past experiences that might allow us to identify a boundary; or something as simple as not having experienced any behavior or incident that helps us to identify a boundary.
Exploring these factors can be emotional work. Feeling a lack of pressure and a sense of emotional security while considering boundaries is essential to accessing honest information.
3 steps to set the right and healthy boundaries during this holiday season:
While honoring our boundaries during the holidays can be complicated, there are ways to approach the season to make the task at hand easier and gentler.
1) Identify your needs and wants:
Rather than adopting the attitude of “I’m just hoping to get through,” it can be beneficial for us to have a conscious focus on our needs. Our basic needs (food, shelter, clothing, sleep, etc.) aside, what do we need in our emotional environment to feel safe? To feel seen? To feel respected? To feel loved? And which of these states do we truly feel is necessary to achieve this holiday season. For some of us, we want to feel loved, which may or may not correlate to feeling safe and respected. Everyone is on a different journey. For some, they may correlate: “I need to feel respected because I want to feel loved.”
To identify our needs, we can be mindful of what we have when we are content: feeling emotional connection and support; access to privacy; physical and emotional security or safety; and control of our actions and itinerary are some examples of needs we may have to feel at peace. It can also be beneficial to consult with a person we trust or observe a person we admire; what boundaries do I see enforced by this person, and how does he/she/they communicate them? In advance of a holiday gathering (or even the invitation to one), we can assess the impending situation.
“I know that if I stay with Aunt Mae, I will have my room and bathroom. If I stay with my parents, I will sleep on the couch in a common area. I will be able to bring my best self to family dinner if I accept Aunt Mae’s invitation to stay with her.”
“I feel nervous when there are a bunch of activities planned, and I’m not sure what and when they are. I will ask for the information in advance and explain that I may not be able to participate if I was not prepared.”
Sometimes, these requests will be met with less-than-ideal responses. While any stated preference or request should be respected, it helps prepare for pushback in advance. Framing your thoughts around your motivation for setting boundaries is incredibly helpful, as is practicing the action of setting boundaries in advance.
2) Challenge and reframe any thoughts that get in the way of setting boundaries:
As we discussed, sometimes, when we set our boundaries, others end up feeling hurt, let down, and sad. If you feel guilty and responsible for their feelings, you start to second-guess your boundaries. First and foremost, it is important to know that IT IS OKAY TO SAY NO.
When we decline to sleep on the sofa at our parents’ house, and our parents are sad about it, it can be tough to disappoint them. Explaining to our parents that we want to make sure the time spent together is high-quality and that a good night’s sleep and a peaceful, private routine will facilitate that should be met with compassion at the very least. If not, we can remind ourselves that IT IS OKAY TO SAY NO. “No” is a complete sentence. Doing your best to communicate your needs is a valiant effort for connection that may not always be appreciated or respected, but the word “no” should be.
We may seek external support of our decisions to feel as though they are valid. This is completely understandable but not always realistic. We may identify a friend or family member who might be in attendance at a function or someone who can be contacted throughout the holiday for reassurance. This person may naturally and intuitively have our back, or maybe someone we want to talk to ahead of time. “I am going to assert x boundary at the dinner; would you be comfortable supporting me in that?”
In the absence of an ally or even if we do have someone in our corner, reminding ourselves that we are the boss of our own life can be incredibly empowering: “I GIVE MYSELF PERMISSION…” This mantra can be said before and during events and situations.
“I give myself permission not to accept a dinner invitation.”
“I give myself permission to decline to answer personal questions about my romantic life.”
At the end of the evening, or once the task is done, that mantra can become a celebration:
“I gave myself permission, and I was right.”
Understanding that we are the charge of our own life and taking action that supports that also enables us to understand that others are responsible for their own lives. In affirming ourselves that, as the boss of our own life, it is our responsibility to advocate for ourselves, we also affirm that we are responsible for our own happiness. This, in turn, informs us of what is not our responsibility: “IT IS NOT MY RESPONSIBILITY TO MAKE OTHERS HAPPY.”
This doesn’t mean that we behave with reckless, rude abandon, crashing through emotional landmines and then skipping away singing, “not my responsibility.” But it is an approach that we owe it to ourselves to take, and others do, too. If our true intention is to bring the best of ourselves to any given situation, we have to honor our own needs in a way that will bring us the most happiness. If making others happy comes at the expense of our own joy, then nobody in the situation will truly be happy. Of course, it is wonderful when our goals and needs align to please everyone, but in the end, it is not our responsibility to make anyone else happy.
3) Visualize yourself setting the boundaries:
You have identified your boundary needs, and you honor them. You have reframed your thoughts as they may apply to set boundaries. Now it is time to practice.
It is not enough just to have a game plan for how you wish to handle a certain situation; you also have to practice it. This could mean writing down the things you wish to say to communicate your needs. This note to yourself could be on a piece of paper tucked in your pocket or typed in a note on your phone. You could text it to a friend and ask them to text it back to you every day of your family visit trip at 10:00 a.m.! Whatever it takes for you to feel that you are prepared to advocate for yourself.
Practice saying your boundary out loud, so you get comfortable with it. While you are practicing, visualize yourself saying it confidently to boost your sense of self-trust. If you have planned to assert a boundary at a function at which you plan to wear a certain item of clothing, wear that item while practicing. Wear the shoes you’ll be wearing. Practice it standing or sitting. Carry or wear a talisman of choice. Whatever it takes to absorb your boundary into your body so that when the moment comes, it is as natural to speak up for yourself as it is to take a breath or scratch an itch.
This season, in particular, we may need to set boundaries that are a matter of safety.
Not all people will want to respect our adherence to social distancing or selectively assigning members of our core bubble. It is imperative that we take the time we need to properly prepare ourselves to break this news to friends and family alike to grieve.
Just because you are setting a boundary doesn’t mean that boundary is easy for you. Identify, challenge, and visualize.
Remember why you are choosing each boundary, be gentle with yourself, be kind to yourself.
Embracing You Therapy Group Practice
Here at Embracing You Therapy Group, we invite you to explore with us how life would be different if you had more control over your thoughts and emotions, and we invite you to consider that it is possible to accept things just as they are, EMBRACING imperfections to create a gentler place for CALM in your life.
At our mental health practice in Woodland Hills, CA, we offer individual therapy and couple’s therapy. Both Dr. Menije and Cindy Sayani, AMFT offer virtual therapy to treat mental health concerns include Anxiety, panic attacks, OCD, phobias, and stress; Mood disorders including depression; Relationship issues, both in couples therapy and with individual clients; Perinatal mental health issues such as postpartum depression or anxiety.
Let’s learn what drives your unique perspective on perfection, and then let’s find the tools-your unique tools-that help you respond to life in a healthy, calm way. Contact us today!