Setting Boundaries Around the Holidays

Cooking with my family is one of my favorite ways to spend time together during the holidays.  

That time of year is rolling around when are planning and preparing for the holidays, all starting with the Thanksgiving table. A return to a family dinner can also precipitate a return to the old family dynamic, the one when you were the child or grandchild or sibling, and a tornado of things were happening all around you, and I'm not speaking of the dinner preparations. 

There's such a thing as good stress: the adrenaline rush cortisol spike we experience when exciting things are happening; and even something like Thanksgiving dinner can produce good stress in the most well-balanced family dynamics. In the event that the family dynamic is unbalanced, stressful, even hurtful, and Thanksgiving dinner or Christmas dinner or New Years dinner can turn into a semi-traumatic event. 

Setting healthy boundaries as a freshly minted adult and newlywed were difficult for me, because I truly had no idea what that meant for my relationships. I thought setting a boundary sounded like something you do to someone who has wronged you, and my version was akin to building The Great Wall of China; a behavior that was hurting me and those I care for more than I thought. Then there was the problem of not having boundaries, and that has a 100% success rate for causing feelings of regret, heartache, overwhelm and inner dispute. Wanting to "be nice" subconsciously controlled my decisions, and really took a toll on my relationships and inner peace [see this article from Verily for more on that]. 

A few years ago, Stephen and I attended a talk for newlyweds about navigating the holidays as a couple and all of the challenges that come up in planning: how to spend, gift expectations, which family to see for which holiday, and how to scale our level of involvement with traditions from our families of origin. The couple mentioned their financial backgrounds: the man's family was well off and always purchased high end gifts for every person in the family, while the woman's family had a simpler background where homemade gifts and sentiments were exchanged instead. For the first years of their marriage they didn't have set boundaries for managing expectations, and also didn't identify which traditions they wanted to create for themselves as a new family. In turn, they both began to dread discussions about the holidays, because they held grudges over their discomfort from every year before. 

After many Christmases with heavy discussions, they decided to set a healthy boundary. They told the husband's family that extravagant gifts were no longer appropriate because of the way they created entitlement and expectations, and they communicated to the wife's family that there were some family traditions they could not participate in. In the end, both families had to pause and because they had so much love for this couple, they responded respectfully; to the couple's great surprise. The husband's family decided to use their usual funds for gifts charitably to buy a goat for a family in need with Heifer International in the name of their grandchildren (which the kids loved), and the wife's family chose one tradition to celebrate with intenionality when they were all together, which made every moment together feel even more special. 

Everything they said resonated with us. We always struggled with trying to please our families, wanting every person to be happy, while we were internally dissatisfied with trying to be all things to all of them. For many years we drove hundreds of miles from house to house, until we somehow managed to get both families together, which turned into a win for all of us. Sometimes, all it takes is gently asking the question. 

After seeking advice from a few mentors, I learned that there is such a thing as healthy boundaries; a way to create a context within a relationship or setting where enjoyment, conversation, and communication can happen, but when the boundary is crossed, something can be done, whether you remove yourself from tricky situations, plan for times of day when visits or events are most neutral, or develop an action plan that sits right with your intuition. Most of the time, when we say simply say out loud that we are going to an event or spending time with a person out of guilt, fear of judgment, or trying to "be nice" it takes away its power, and suddenly we can change how we approach our reaction to those same circumstances. 

There are 2 books that bring light to issues with boundaries by providing anecdotes and stories that describe scenarios that most of us have experienced many times before. The first book is Boundaries by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend, which describes, with such clarity, beginner steps for incorporating healthy, loving boundaries into healthy and unhealthy relationships, for the benefit of our own interior peace. The second is The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown, which you may have heard me mention before as a book that has changed my life. Brene Brown is a shame and guilt researcher, and I can't believe the wisdom she packed into such a slim text. If there are 2 books you want to cram on the way to your Thanksgiving table, I highly recommend finding them on audiobook (with Audible, Hoopla, or OverDrive apps) to listen to as you travel, though I prefer holding the actual book in my hand (and underlining, starring, marking the pages like a madwoman!). 

In case you're still not convinced that boundary-setting is necessary, take some time to think about your relationships. Are they the kind where mini panic ensues when a certain name comes up on caller ID, and immediately dread and anxiety fill your headspace? If so, it could be time to create a healthy boundary so that the relationship can continue to grow without operating under pressure or from a negative place of fear. Not many of us grow up with the knowledge of how to deal with issues like boundaries, so good books and wisdom from trustworthy mentors help bring out solutions that grant our hearts peace. 


SELFNicole M. CarusoComment