Boundaries: Home For The Holidays Part 4
So far in this series we’ve talked about what healthy boundaries are (and are not), looked at how Jesus set boundaries and responded to people with unhealthy boundaries, and learned how to grow away from the primary illusion contributing to boundary issues. In this post we will apply all that we’ve discovered to some common holiday family drama scenarios so you can begin to plan ahead for your family gatherings.
(Unnecessary Disclaimer: the following situations are fictional situations I’ve created based on many different conversations and are not intended to represent any specific persons. The last thing I need is to start drama based on a blog post about reducing drama!)
Let’s start off with something relatively minor. Say Grandma wants to have her Thanksgiving dinner on actual Thanksgiving day as always, but your in-laws also want to have Thanksgiving dinner on Thanksgiving day since that’s the only day they have off from work during the holiday week. You know Grandma will be offended if you suggest a change, and your in-laws have limited flexibility.
I’ve spoken with several people who are so terrified of any potential conflict that they refuse to talk to either party about the scheduling issues. Instead of explaining the situation and asking for what they want, they feel trapped and have a panic attack. Here are your principles for such situations:
Do not try to take control of other people’s happiness. The fear in this situation is based on the belief that if you cause one party to be unhappy then they will be angry at you and you will experience pain. The fear of pain is not a legitimate excuse for trying to control other peoples’ emotions. Radically accept that disappointment is part of this life. You are disappointed to not be able to attend both gatherings as currently scheduled, and one of your hosts will be disappointed by your absence if they are not able to reschedule. This is a loss to be grieved, not a matter for you to control.
Be the healthy person you want to interact with by explaining the situation and expressing your wants and needs. Taking the initiative to create a solution will be received much better than ignoring the situation until it’s too late to do anything about it, and you will feel calmer and more confident for having expressed your wants and needs even if plans cannot be arranged how you’d like them to be.
Here is another common situation: one or more members of your family intentionally start an argument based on controversial topics like politics, religion, lifestyle choices or whatever else they feel like ranting about at the time. Even if the instigator isn’t trying to bait you personally, such situations can still be very stressful for everyone in the house. Here are your principles for dealing with trolls:
Remember our real enemy is Satan, not each other.
Regardless of how cringe-worthy great-uncle Bob’s loud opinions are, remind yourself that God created each one of us humans with the same amount of value, and there is nothing anyone can say to you or about you that can change how valuable you are. You do not have to engage people who want to argue with you. You are not responsible for changing their minds or hearts. You can do what Jesus did and just walk away. Politely excuse yourself and find somewhere else to be. Don’t let our real enemy wreak havoc in you and through you by fighting to control someone else’s beliefs or falling into the trap of devaluing someone else because they think differently than you.
Don’t accidentally commit the same sin you’re so offended by in someone else – devaluing them because they are devaluing others.
Families love to tell stories when they get together. Unfortunately, some families have a habit of sharing embarrassing stories and mistakes because they find it relieving to turn the attention away from their own faults by shaming someone else. If you become the focus of such reminiscing: It’s okay to say, “I feel embarrassed when you tell that story every year. I want to enjoy our time together without feeling poorly about myself. Please don’t tell that story anymore.” You can follow the formula, “I feel (feeling) when you (action), and I want (desire) so please (request)” to communicate clearly and take responsibility for your stuff in such situations.
Be prepared to receive a, “Oh lighten up”, or , “Stop being so sensitive” from your relatives. If they are unwilling to change their behavior then you can leave.
Now let’s talk a bit about physical boundaries. You don’t have to hug, kiss, sit next to, talk to, or be in the same room with someone who doesn’t respect your physical boundaries. You don’t owe great-uncle Bob any physical contact. Neither do your kids. I know that hello and goodbye greetings involving hugs and kisses are standard in many families, but that doesn’t mean you have to make your children, or yourself, give anything they/you don’t want to. Stand up for your kids and yourself. I’ve spoken to more young women than I care to count who feel like they “have” to attend holiday gatherings with a family member who is too touchy for their comfort or who has even physically or sexually abused them. This year try just waving and saying “bye everyone!” Or, if you’re faced with an abusive person, choose not to go.
You’re probably sensing a theme by now. There is an underlying belief that we must tolerate unhealthy boundaries from family members because they are family members and that’s just what you deal with around the holidays. You are not a bad person if you choose to stop presenting yourself for harm. Even if that means you choose to leave early or not attend family gatherings at all.
We want our families to be healthy and to enjoy our time with them. We want the Hallmark holiday pictures and dinners and gifts. We want to belong and be known and loved, but just because we want it doesn’t mean it will happen. If you are tired of the anxiety, stress, depression, disappointment, frustration, and regret which characterizes your holidays with family and you want that to change, then you’ve got to do something different than what you’ve done before.
For the sake of time I’m going to share a few more principles without detailed situations:
Remember that emotions are data, not directives. Anxiety about family gatherings means that you’ve experienced pain before and need to plan ahead to handle potential issues. Anger means something is hurting you or someone you care about and action needs to be chosen to stop the cause of the pain. Feeling loss, disappointment, devalued, unloved, or unwanted are hurts which need to be addressed and grieved. Panicking, yelling, arguing, gossiping, lashing out, and self-medicating might sound/feel like what you need to do, but they only add to hurt instead of moving toward healing.
Prepare responses beforehand. Here are a few of my favorites:
“I’m happy to do what I can for you when you let me know what you want and need.”
“I’ve enjoyed our time together. It’s time for me to head home now.”
“Just a heads up – I may need to leave early this year so I can get plenty of sleep for work.”
“Enjoying our time together is more important to me than getting everything perfect.”
“Thanks for sharing that with me.”
“I appreciate your honesty. I’m going to continue (action such as parenting) in the way I believe is best.”
“You may not be rude to me/my child/spouse.”
“I see you’re very upset right now. What can I do to help? (or) I’ll come back tomorrow when you’re feeling calmer.”
Don’t get on the roller coaster. You don’t have to join someone on their wild emotional ride. You can stay on the platform, where there’s no drama, until they come to a stop and then try engaging them again.
Decide when you will leave, and under what conditions you will leave early, before the gathering (with your significant other if applicable).
Make alternate plans with safe people.
Don’t make your family responsible for your happiness. Families can be crazy, and the holidays can be stressful, but ultimately you are in control of your own happiness and emotional health.
You’re looking at a window into someone else’s pain. All our unhealthy boundaries are ways to avoid, mitigate, or control pain. Unfortunately, they cause more pain and problems than they solve. What might that mean for your family members and how you respond to them?
Remember to consider what you are contributing to drama, not just how you’ll respond to other’s drama. What beliefs and thoughts do you have toward your relatives and about the holidays that set you up for a bad experience or self-fulfilling prophecy? This is about what you can do with your beliefs, thoughts, feelings, and actions; not controlling the people around you.
I’m thankful that you’ve taken the time to read this series! Comment or contact me with any questions, and I hope you have a great and healthy holiday!