Boundaries: The Gifts that Keep on Giving
When to say "yes" and how to say "no" this holiday season
The holiday season is like the Olympics when you're a psychologist. While holidays can be wonderful, November and December have their own unique challenges. Holidays can be stressful. When people are stressed, they tend to regress.
Boundaries have become a bit of a buzzword in the pop psychology zeitgeist, but they are essential for our wellbeing. Many challenging aspects of human behavior and relationships boil down to boundary issues. Boundaries are limits and standards that we set and uphold. They differentiate responsibility and delineate what's yours and what's not. Boundaries define the "when, then" rules that guide decisions and actions. To experience health and success, we must have healthy boundaries with ourselves and others.
Boundaries With Yourself
When people first think of holding boundaries, they often think about how to set limits with others, but it's important to master yourself first. We are often our own worst enemy. We're quick to give ourselves excuses when we opt for the easy way out instead of showing up as the person we truly want to be.
If you want to create a future you'll be excited to live in come January and beyond, you need to learn to set limits with yourself now. You are actively creating the life you will have tomorrow through the decisions you make today. Unfortunately, we are hard-wired to indulge ourselves in the moment with little-to-no regard for the downstream consequences of our impulsive choices. We all have an inner Veruca Salt who wants what we want (and we want it noooooooow). A strategy I often use with clients is to use the "6x10 Question” to slow down and consider how their future self may feel about whatever they are contemplating:
How will I feel about this choice in:
Healthy, successful people have mastered the ability to say "no" to themselves in the moment so that they can say "yes" to something far better in the future. This isn't deprivation—it's self-respect.
Boundaries with Others
Healthy boundaries in our relationships have two components: clear communication and direct follow-through. We teach people how to treat us. In our relationships, it's not the job or responsibility of other people to know what we need or want—we need to let them know. Don't expect people to be mind readers and then punish them for disappointing you. In our relationships, it's crucial that we directly articulate our expectations. After that, it is up to someone how they will respond to our request. If they opt to act in a way that doesn't align with what we need, we are back in the power seat of deciding how to respond to their choice. We state requests and expectations with our words and uphold boundaries through our actions.
"No" can be a particularly challenging response in our relationships. We need to know how to hear it, accept it with grace, and not melt down. We also need to be adept at stating it confidently. "No." is a perfectly acceptable one-word sentence. It requires no defense, apology, or explanation. A full exposition of the psychological intricacies of why people struggle so much to say "no" to others is beyond the scope of this post, but often it boils down to discomfort and confusion about responsibility for another person's reaction to us. It can be uncomfortable to sit with someone's negative reaction when their request or wish isn't granted. They may be angry or disappointed. Those are two very natural reactions in those circumstances. But ultimately, we cannot control another person's feelings, so we need to stop taking ownership and responsibility for them. To say "yes" out of guilt, fear, or obligation when everything in you is screaming "no" may allow you to temporarily avoid discomfort. But, in the long run, you aren't buying someone's happiness with your conceding agreement—you're only creating resentment that you will have to carry.
People sometimes hesitate to say no because they overestimate how much something matters to someone else. Come January, your Aunt Carol probably won't remember whether or not you took the third piece of pumpkin pie she tried to serve you on Thanksgiving, but your body will keep score. You will live with the natural consequences of your choices today, so prioritize yourself in your decision-making calculus. Putting everyone else's whims and wishes ahead of your own doesn't make you a saint. It casts you as a martyr, and that is not an empowered place to live.
The holidays will give you myriad opportunities to practice holding healthy boundaries in multiple areas of your life.
Boundaries with Time & Energy
While people tend to throttle back at the office as the year comes to a close, social calendars tend to fill up. Parties. Recitals. Family gatherings. School programs. More parties. While (mostly) fun, it can feel like a lot. Remember, just because you are invited to something doesn't mean that you have to go. Where do you want to spend your time? Who do you want to spend it with? Pay careful attention to who and what is energizing or depleting your energy reserves. If you have kids, consider their bandwidth too.
Boundaries with Money
Many households experience an uptick in expenses during Q4. Communicate with the adults in your home about the plan for presents. Take an honest look at your finances, establish a budget, and stick to it. When it comes to gifts, what others expect from you, what you might receive, or what you have spent in the past doesn't determine what you can afford this year. Many families have unspoken rules about this tradition which can create pressure and a set of stressful expectations. If money is making you anxious this holiday, engage in courageous conversations about the topic to spare you even more stress later on. Remember: Nothing you buy will convince anyone that you love them more. Most of what you purchase will be forgotten, but the tenor of the time you spend together will not.
Boundaries with Food
Holiday celebrations tend to be food-centric events. Everyone eats, but we all have different ideas about what is delicious, healthy, and appropriate to consume. As you engage with food this holiday, think in advance about how the experience can be both enjoyable and nourishing. Eating until you feel sick isn't fun, so spare yourself the pain by going in with a strategy. If someone provides unsolicited commentary on your plate or tries to convince you to eat something that's not your jam, give a firm "No, thank you." If someone dares to comment on changes in your weight or question how much you're eating, let them know their comments are unwelcome. "I wouldn't say something about your body or portion size, so please do not comment on mine." Many people's remarks about food and weight are a reflection of their own struggles and insecurities. Don't drag around their baggage. If you want to bring a mirror to their projection you can query, "Why do you think this is so important to you?"
Boundaries with Alcohol
Contrary to popular belief, you don't need to drink to celebrate. Going into the holidays, be honest with yourself about your relationship with alcohol. Has anyone ever expressed concern about your drinking? Do you use it to escape? If you needed to stop, could you?
If drinking is something that you plan to curb or cut out this holiday season, great! Be sure to have a response ready if someone comments on your choice. "No thanks, I'm good with water" and "Nope, I'm not drinking right now." are great go-tos if someone offers to bring you something from the bar.
If you consume alcohol this holiday season, have fun but remember that being sloppy or blacked out is never a classy look. Alcohol lowers your inhibition, so set your limit before you start. If you're likely to tell yourself, "Maybe just one more" most of the night, consider putting measures in place to help you put on the brakes. Enlisting accountability or making a public declaration to someone you trust will support your responsible decision-making and can go a long way to prevent a hangover and regret, or much worse—an accident if you get behind the wheel.
Remember, you want to “Eat, Drink, and Be Merry.” You shouldn’t have to "Eat and Drink to Be Merry." If you notice that you are using food or alcohol to medicate strong emotions or manage stress, it's a sign to step back. Consider speaking with someone--it may be the best gift you could give yourself right now.
Boundaries about your Relationship Status & Reproductive Choices
When it comes to our love lives and what happens in our bedrooms, people seem to think it's always open season for asking invasive questions and offering their two cents. Unwelcome queries about your relational status can hurt or be aggravating. It's okay to inform someone you'd rather focus on other areas of your life during your conversation. The most interesting thing about you is not whether you're married or not.
Questions about having kids are commonplace, but your family planning is no one else's business. If you're confronted with questions about pregnancy or progeny, shutting them down is not impolite. This can be a particularly sensitive topic for people struggling with infertility or miscarriage. If someone is running at the mouth about your reproductive system, you may be doing a public service to remind them of this.
Boundaries about Parenting
No one-size-fits-all approach to parenting guarantees your kids will turn out great. Unfortunately, many people tend to think their way is The Way. Friction surrounding parenting decisions can easily surface at family gatherings. Sometimes adult siblings have different standards for their kids, and the contrast can create challenges. In other situations, there is tension when two generations have different ideas about how things should go. Not all grandparents ascribe to a philosophy: "I did my job as a parent. Now it's my child's turn, and I'm going to mind my business." It can be helpful for adult children to let parents know, "I may not do everything the same way you did, but I'm working on figuring it out. If I want advice or help, I know who to ask."
Boundaries aren't selfish or cruel—they're compassionate. People don't need to understand or agree with your boundaries to accept them. We develop boundaries to protect ourselves and the people around us, not to punish anyone. They are a tool to create authenticity and deeper intimacy in our relationships. Remember this during the upcoming holiday season: boundaries are the gifts that keep on giving.
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