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How to Set Clear Boundaries at the Holidays

For a lucky few among us, the holidays are everything they purport to be: a relaxing chance to spend time with family, celebrate love, and bask in the glow of another year well-lived. But for too many people, thoughts of the holidays are more likely to call to mind images of screaming relatives, demanding parents, and endless debt. If the holidays inspire dread for you, you’re not alone. If you’ve spent any time researching how to better manage your family and your emotions, you’ve probably heard that you need to set better boundaries.

What does this mean? Setting boundaries isn’t easy. After all, if it were, then everyone would do it and we all really could have blissful holidays. With a little commitment, an awareness of your own emotions and, if necessary, the assistance of a skilled counsellor, this holiday season can be the time you finally draw clear boundaries.

Boundaries Are for You, Not the Other Person

One of the biggest mistakes we see our clients make is believing that boundaries are for the other person. You cannot control how another person treats you; you can only control your response. Boundaries are about teaching people how to treat you, and making clear the consequences for treating you poorly. Some examples:

  • Bad boundary: “Mom, you will not be allowed to criticize me this year.”
    Good boundary: “I will end the conversation if my mom begins criticizing me.”
  • Bad boundary: “Dad, I’m not going to let you make racist jokes at dinner.”
    Good boundary: “If my dad makes inappropriate comments, I will ask him to stop, then leave if necessary.”
  • Bad boundary: “I’m not going to let mom get away with monopolizing my time this holiday season.”
    Good boundary: “I will set a clear holiday schedule and stick to it, even if my mom complains, whines, or tries to manipulate me.”

Remember, boundaries address the problematic ways you allow others to treat you. A good boundary constrains your behavior, thereby limiting the range of reactions the other person can have.

It Takes Two to Quarrel

Like it or not, if you have a problem with another person, you are contributing to it in some way—even if it’s only by letting him or her get away with mistreating you. This year, focus on the role you play in your family’s conflicts. You can’t change your loved ones, but you can change yourself. And here’s a nice bonus: by adjusting the way you react to your loved ones, you may make strides in other areas of your life, too, so looking at your own behavior can help you improve more than just the holiday season.

Mastering Communication Rules

When your mother tells you you need to lose weight or your sister begins babbling about her perfect life, you might be tempted to grab the turkey knife and jump halfway across the table. Impulsive reactions are rarely effective, and saying what feels good can lead to a cascade of interactions that feel distinctly bad. Instead, focus on cultivating better communication skills. The following expressions can de-escalate a rapidly escalating family meal:

  • “I’m sorry you feel that way. I love you, and that’s now how I intended it.”
  • “You might be right.”
  • “I disagree. I think______ instead.”
  • “Can we please change the subject? This conversation hurts my feelings.”
  • “I love you, and love spending time with you, but I won’t let you insult me.”

When all else fails, change the subject to one of the few topics that’s bound to get everyone interested: children, pets, funny stories, and this year’s triumphs.

Lowering Your Expectations

No one wants to go into the holiday season expecting endless family feuds or disappointing presents. Unreasonably high expectations, though, inevitably lead to disappointments. Your family is not perfect; no one’s is. So if you anticipate a fiasco-free holiday, you’re bound to be disappointed. Learn to love your family’s imperfections, since these traits are what make it unique. Go easy on yourself, too. You might not be able to have a movie-worthy holiday, but with acceptance, patience, and a sense of humor, this holiday season could be your best on record.