Afraid To Be Around Certain Family This Holiday? Set Your Boundaries Before You Set the Table

Learning how to set good boundaries with your family is a self-care must, especially around the holidays when dynamics tend to resurface. I mean who doesn't have issues with someone in their family? This is such a universally important topic, I’ve been asked to teach a spiritually-minded seminar on lessening the emotional distress that our family members so often trigger. Whether you have challenges with your spouse or sister, mother in law or brother, step children or your own child, I hope this blog at the very least helps you feel less alone and more accepting of where you are in your journey. The process of establishing healthy boundaries with family typically awakens tremendous growth and healing, far more than we often realize. Acceptance puts our feet on the transformation path.

GOOD FENCES MAKE GOOD NEIGHBORS

I have come to learn (and am still learning) that setting a boundary is not as much about saying no to someone else, as saying YES to your self, and ultimately saying yes to more love and harmony in your life. Clear boundaries build a highway into your heart, so you can not only live happily and more true to yourself, but paradoxically they help you to be more loving

YOU HAVE OPTIONS

Before any boundary setting tip can penetrate, we must identify and break through our belief systems that limit our power of choice.  We are not only allowed to, but responsible for, factoring in our own needs and values when it comes to time with family. A family system is meant to be dynamic, ever changing as each member grows and transforms. One of the most exhilarating breakthroughs I see erupting from a person’s soul comes when they realize the power they have to create their life, to live on their own terms. It’s this simple, you have options.

When the holidays approach, the issues often center around the family gatherings. I find 3 relevant options when that certain family member pushes your buttons:

  1. Attend the Gathering and Strengthen Your Internal Boundaries (i.e., How to Fortify Your Inner Growth and Let go) 

  2. Attend the Gathering and Strengthen Your External Boundaries (i.e., How to Firmly and Respectfully Confront)

  3. Choose to Not Attend or Invite

LET’S GET CONCRETE

More than just suggestions in theory, I am often asked for concrete coaching tips to establish emotional and physical boundaries with family.  That is, “What do I actually say and do?” Each personal circumstance is unique so please consider the suggestions below with an inward ear to assess what might fit for you. Nonetheless, be prepared to stretch. 

Internal Boundaries Create a Protection Shield: Turn Within and Ask Yourself These 4 Questions 

If someone says something or behaves in a way (directly or indirectly) that triggers emotional pain, in that moment of reaction, we have handed our personal power to them. It’s human. But to shift that power back to our own internal source, we must turn within. I recommend asking yourself these 4 questions to begin building an internal boundary, a protection shield.

  1. Is what they are saying or implying really true about me? Is how they are treating me a reflection of my worth or my true character? It’s important to realize that they are not the source of your truth.  You are! 

  2. How might I be treating myself they way they are treating me?  That is, if they are neglecting me, perhaps I am neglecting myself in some way.  If worth is an issue for you, then ask yourself, what can I do to improve my thoughts and feelings about myself, how I treat and take care of myself?

  3. Is what they are saying or doing more about them than me? Is their behavior a reflection of the lack they feel? Sometimes this can help awaken compassion—a great way to set an internal boundary. 

  4. What button in me are they pushing to ultimately help me become my best?  This spiritually minded approach gives us the ultimate personal power as we connect to the truth of our soul. A concept strongly emphasized in the wisdom of Kabbalah is that we are here in this world to remove that which blocks us from our unlimited and fearless essence. With this in mind, family members are meant to push our buttons to help us see our fears, our insecurities and to awaken our desire to heal and transform. Our family become integral players, albeit sometimes quite challenging ones, in our process of owning the power we possess inside, rather than buying into the illusion that our power resides in anyone or anything external. Click to learn more here.

External Boundaries: How to Respectfully Express Your Boundary

After taking the 4 internal questions above to heart, and only after, you should have greater mental strength and clarity to assess whether some greater action feels right for you. Again, accept where you are and only do what “your best” looks like. Here are some practical tips to firmly and respectfully confront, whether that’s to not attend the event at all or to address behavior that crosses your self care line.

  1. Write Down Your Personal Parameters.  Yes actually write on paper! Getting to know what you will or will not allow into your life is powerful and especially when manifested through writing. It’s like you’re half way there, making expressing your needs and desires much less scary.  You can start with, “To honor my own self respect and love, others may not _________.” (e.g., comment about my weight, talk over me, assume I’ll go along, criticize or make fun of me, take their anger out on me, decide what is best for me).  

  2. Don’t Avoid. I’ve learned the hard way how avoiding makes things blow up.  This means not waiting until the day of the holiday but rather well in advance to speak with your family about your needs and boundaries. 

  3. Be Authentic and Open When You Can.  As long as the family member is relatively emotionally balanced, I find it often best to discuss your issues from the heart.  And of course, well ahead of time is best. Try to focus less on judging them and more on sharing authentically what you are struggling with and what you need.

  4. Frame it Positively. How we word things can literally make all the difference. I remember when raising our kids, how much better the interaction went when we kept our limits for them positive. Firm, but also positive. I say the same applies for anyone in our life when we set limits.  If you’re mother is a yeller, then rather than saying, “Don’t yell at me! You’re impossible.”  Try, “I care about how you feel and what you want.  I would love to hear what you have to say as soon as you’re calm.”  If that doesn’t work, more firm boundaries might be needed.  

Yes-No-Yes. Another positive method is called Yes! No. Yes? William Ury writes about this 3-step method, mostly for business interactions. From common scenarios with my clients, here are some examples applied to family (notice the I language, not You):

Example 1: When you’ve decided to reduce time spent with family on the holidays as a personal self care boundary

The Yes: I realize that I need to take better care of my health and life balance. The No: So I won’t be staying as long as usual for our family dinner and I’ve gotten really clear about this. The Yes: This way when I’m there I can be fully present.

Example 2: Stopping critical comments

The Yes: I am really working on growing more unconditionally accepting of my body, my self and others.  The No: I have decided that I will stop anyone who comments on my weight or says anything I perceive as critical. The Yes: I am happy to help support you or anyone in our family to feel better about themselves too.  Let me know how I can do the same for you. 

DON’T GO IT ALONE

Please know that I always recommend reaching out for counseling support and healing work to draw strength for boundary setting, especially for those with chronically unbalanced family members. Setting boundaries are typically easier said than done because responses to traumatic events or upbringings naturally get stuck in our nervous system. It can feel terrifying to make changes when we are wired for harsh consequences from our past. But the best news of all is that each and every one of us has a reservoir of unlimited healing energy inside of us. We simply need the desire, and the tools and support, to tap in.

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From the get-go, even before our son Jeremy was conceived, I felt a strong sense of purpose to raise a boy freed from the limitations of macho-based confidence. From the moment he was born, my parenting thought process was guided by this desire — to help our son be comfortable with his vulnerable emotions, nurture his innate empathy, and appreciate the true strength and courage in being real.

Our society often reinforces a belief system that resilience means suppressing emotions, pushing our way through. Susan David, a Harvard psychologist, says the opposite is true. Rather than suppressing difficult emotions and thoughts, we thrive by becoming Emotionally Agile, meaning “to be with ourselves and our emotions.” 

How do we start teaching our sons they can have vulnerable emotions? Here are some tips to consider:

LISTEN WITH EMPATHY
Make it safe to share feelings.  The best way to do this is to listen without rushing to a solution or judging. Sometimes our own fears get in the way and we get reactive when our kids feel upset.  Just reflect and let the boy or man in your life know you understand.  Be on the lookout for signs of fear or sadness, disappointment or insecurity.  Ask open-ended questions, like “You seem upset, what’s going on?” “How was your day — what was the best and the worst part?” Actively listen, validate, show you understand and that you want to hear how he feels. It’s always good to show trust and belief in him and his ability to grow stronger from this experience.

MODEL EMOTIONAL OPENNESS
When we ourselves are comfortable with our emotions and our pain, and can express our needs and feelings in a proactive way, kids watch and pick up on this healthy emotional vibe. I asked Jeremy today, now 21, for his perspective on how we (hopefully) taught him, as a boy, to be in touch with his emotions. He texted, “The way you guys live. Anytime something is on your mind you guys tell it how it is— so we can understand, adjust and change if it’s a recurring thing.”  Jeremy continued “ … to sit down and talk about things together, be it planning or issues that come up, this made for an evident culture of not holding things in.” While our kids still groan to us when they tease about our family meetings, apparently they were a good thing. 

TEACH EMOTIONS 101
Find opportunities to drop little emotion lessons in here and there, first and foremost that emotions are not something to run from or fear.  For example, something I learned from the wisdom of Kabbalah, “It’s a strength to 'be with' our pain and not run from it.” Another tidbit of truth: "When we get our feelings out, we feel more in control and less likely to blow up in the wrong place or in the wrong way.”

ENCOURAGE MUSIC, ART, LITERATURE, NATURE, ANIMALS, SPIRITUALITY
Our culture can send messages to boys that the liberal arts side of education is a feminizing idea. Boys have been known to tease and judge each other for these interests. Look for little seeds of interest in the arts or nature, animals or music — and pour on the support.  Our son is convinced that his passion for music, and being encouraged to pursue his musicianship, helped him connect to his softer side. He said, “it was easier for me to find my emotions through music.”  Sports and video games have their place but they don’t typically open your heart the way the arts and nature do. If spirituality or religion is a part of your life, being open with this in your home, sharing about your journey & what you are learning-- this can help encourage inward turning.

BUY HIM A JOURNAL
Journaling is the tool I suggest most for my clients, more than any other tool, across age, gender and the personal or relationship issue that brings them in. Don’t push it, but suggest a journal or log.  Writing our thoughts and feelings down awakens the inner communication channels — and can make it easier to express to others once you’ve gotten more clear of your own inner voice.  Identifying our thoughts and feelings can give us a greater sense of control making us less likely to respond with our knee-jerk reaction. 

REMIND HIM TO SPEAK FROM HIS HEART
When my husband and I first got married, I soon noticed that it was hard for him to be real.  He would ask me for advice on giving a talk at work or writing a card to a friend or family.  All I had to say was, “Speak from your heart.” And the perfect message would come through.  

FIND A GIRL MENTOR
Whether that’s an older sister, a neighbor or cousin, having a girl close to your son’s age in his life can really make a difference.  Not his mom who is miles away generationally, a young positive girl mentor can teach your son how to treat a girl with respect and sensitivity.  If she’s mature enough and willing, she can help model how it’s cool to talk about feelings sometimes. 

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