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How to Set Boundaries With Family

A guide to maintaining your sanity during the holidays... and all days.

Gerd Altmann/Pixabay
Family conflict increases over the holidays.
Source: Gerd Altmann/Pixabay

During my Clinical Psychology Ph.D. program, I did a rotation on an inpatient unit treating patients struggling with suicidality and homicidality. The unit never seemed more full than it was during the holidays.

A fellow trainee surmised that people either didn't have family during the holidays, felt lonely and alone, and subsequently became suicidal; or, conversely, spent too much time with their families, and became homicidal. The comment was snarky, but it turns out there's some truth to the theory: homicide rates are indeed higher on major holidays (Baird et al, 2019), and complaints about domestic and household disturbances also go up (Rotton & Frey, 1985). Homicidal or not, the time between Thanksgiving and New Years can be incredibly stressful, whether lonely and isolated, or overwhelmed by difficult family members. Family, or lack thereof, can be triggering on regular days, too.

Here's a guide for setting healthy boundaries with family - during the holidays and ALL DAYS - so that you can maintain your sanity.

1. Value yourself and your time. You're important and deserve to be treated well. If the people around you don't appreciate and respect you, family or otherwise, ask yourself whether you actually want to spend time with them, and how much. You get to choose what you do, with whom, and when. Your time is precious, and if you don't value how you spend it, nobody else will either. Actively opt to surround yourself with people who build you up instead of tearing you down. Imagine what your life would be like if you exclusively spent time with people who adored and valued you?

2. Give yourself permission to do what's best for you. Cultural norms suggest that you're supposed to spend time (not to mention holidays) with family - and that if you don't, something is "wrong" with you. Ahhh, the joys of stigma! What if yours is a toxic family system, familial relationships are abusive, and your relatives hurt you? At the end of the day, YOU are your biggest advocate and supporter. It's important to have healthy boundaries, regardless of whether or not others understand and accept them. Limiting time with toxic people is an act of self-love. No shame in this game.

3. Know your triggers and anticipate them. We all have triggers and they're different for each of us. Triggers can range from watching your parents enable and coddle your unemployed brother, to your sister whispering about you to her sycophantic husband, to your cousin sticking her fingers in the Christmas ham. Always be one step ahead of your triggers by knowing: a) what they are, b) what emotions arise, c) how to best take care of them, and d) how you'll plan to respond once triggered. If you suspect that an event or conversation will be triggering, try role-playing with a friend in advance - including how to end the conversation peacefully and walk away. Being prepared for a stressful situation can make it less stressful.

4. Be clear about your needs and communicate them. Identify your needs and boundaries in advance. For example: Do you need your mother-in-law to come over only after all preparations are complete? Would you prefer that she leave her yappy dog at home? How much time do you want to spend with family? With friends? Alone? (Don't forget alone-time, friends.) You may not want to be with family at all this holiday season, and instead prefer to spend time with friends. Guess what? That's 100% okay. You may ultimately decide that you don't want to have a relationship with an abusive family member at all. And while that may be very painful, that's okay, too. It's your life and your precious time. Once you've identified your limits, communicate them clearly and kindly.

5. Practice saying no. I have a client who, as a people-pleaser who hates disappointing others, finds it hard to say no - especially to his family. He notes that not some "no's" are more difficult than others: "soft no's" are easier than "hard no's." A "soft no" leaves room for a potential "yes" in the future: Maybe later, I have to check my calendar, I'm tired right now but ask me in an hour. "Hard no's" are firm and finite: Sorry, I already have plans; I don't want to do that; Please stop talking to me like that or I'm leaving. In treatment, we made a "menu" of no's ranging from softest to hardest, and practiced different no-saying-scenarios until they felt familiar and comfortable. Then he started using them with family. Over time, he became better at advocating for himself—and his self-confidence surged. Setting limits not only makes you feel stronger because you're standing up for yourself, but it communicates to others that you know your needs and aren't scared to state them. As uncomfortable as setting them maybe, boundaries are good for relationships, not bad.

6. Make a list of coping strategies. Make a list of coping strategies in advance of a triggering event that will help you get through. These can include: going for a walk, taking a hot bath, listening to soothing music, having a designated friend to whom you can vent, carving out alone-time, ripping phone books (don't knock it 'til you've tried it!), joining an online support group, getting a therapist, lifting weights, journaling, drawing, getting a massage, deep breathing, watching movies, meditating, bringing a friend along for support, or skipping it altogether... and heading to Mexico instead.

Your time is yours, holidays or not. Set boundaries. Take care of yourself. You are worth it.

Copyright © 2022 Rachel Zoffness

Read next: What Changes Pain? The science behind why pain is painful.

References

Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC, 2013). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/suicide/holiday.html.

Baird, A., While, D., Flynn, S., Ibrahim, S., Kapur, N., Appleby, L., & Shaw, J. (2019). Do homicide rates increase during weekends and national holidays?. The Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology, 30(3), 367-380.

Rotton, J., & Frey, J. (1985). Air pollution, weather and violent crimes: Concomitant time-series analysis of archival data. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 49, 207 – 1220.

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