Another Thanksgiving has come and gone and all that remains are the leftovers… and possibly some hard feelings. If looking ahead to the next round of holiday dinners and gatherings has you particularly distressed, you are not alone. On the heels of the particularly contentious 2016 presidential election, many holiday guests may be arriving with some extra baggage and a little less holiday cheer this year. If dealing with family togetherness is already problematic, that just adds bitter icing to an already troubled cake.
Even in the best family situations, the holidays can add unnecessary stress to emotions, budgets and time commitments. Often we get caught up in maintaining a greeting card image that simply isn’t realistic, while at the same time, we hate to feel as though we are letting people down by not doing what they ask. Rather than simply gearing up for a fight or preparing to suffer in silence, there is something you can do – starting now – to make visits with family go a little more smoothly.
“Setting boundaries is an important skill for handling conflict,” says Kate Nesterwitz, MS, LMFT, at Carapace Counseling. “Often we harbor resentments and make choices based on what we think another person thinks. Setting boundaries is a way to start a conversation, clear the air, and, perhaps, discover that what we thought would be a problem isn’t a problem at all.”
Have you experienced any of these scenarios?
- Your sister always sets the dollar amount for the family gift exchange at a level that is more than you can afford.
- Your mother insists that you arrive the day before Christmas Eve and stay until the day after Christmas, but you can’t miss that much work.
- Family members don’t respect your spouse/significant other because he or she is a different race/religion, or is your same sex partner.
- It’s your turn to host, but your in-laws are overly critical of you, your home or your cooking.
The anticipation of these types of conflicts makes us feel even worse — and for a longer period of time — than the conflict itself. We dread the consequences of asserting ourselves and of not asserting ourselves. We feel manipulated by the passive aggressive behavior of others in response to our requests, or we become passive aggressive in an unsuccessful attempt to feel better in a painful or uncomfortable situation.
Take a moment now to think about the situation, demand or expectation that troubles you. Then, consider these tips on setting boundaries to free yourself from guilt, worry and stress.
- Soften the blow.
When responding to a demand that you don’t want to or can’t fulfill, engage the person from a place of empathy rather than becoming defensive. Let her know that you understand why she is asking for this. If you don’t know, ask why it is important to her and then express your understanding of her position.
“Why is it so important that I come for Christmas Eve and all of Christmas Day?”
- Listen actively.
When asking someone why his position is important to him, pay attention to his answer rather than focusing on your next argument and don’t interrupt. When he is done speaking, let him know that you hear him by repeating it back to him and validating his position.
“I understand that you feel bad that we don’t get together as a family very often, and you miss having us close by…”
- Put people’s emotions back on them.
Everyone is responsible for his or her own feelings. You can acknowledge the other person’s feelings and still make the choices that are best for you. The other person can choose to accept your decision and make the best of it (expressing normal disappointment accompanied by understanding), or not. You are not required to take on someone else’s anger, sadness or disappointment. Similarly, if you are in a position to compromise, it is okay to express some disappointment, followed by understanding, but not to put your negative feelings on the other person.
“I understand and I’m happy to talk to you, but I’m not going to change my plans.”
“I’m sorry that you won’t be able to join us for dinner, but I look forward to seeing you for brunch the next day.”
- Resist creating a “court of law” setting.
Everyone has a right to set their own boundaries and expectations for how they can be spoken to, and a simple, straightforward statement, such as, “Please don’t speak to me that way,” may be all that is necessary. However, when two sides are arguing for their “truth,” the result is often greater division. In the case of someone who is disrespectful, inappropriate or hurtful, calling that person out may only cause him or her to dig in deeper. Instead, find a way to move to a more united conversation where people are interested in understanding each other.
“I can respect your differences in views, but I will not accept hateful behavior.”
“If you’d like to know more about [my views, my partner’s views, our history, why we feel this way, etc.), I would be happy to share. But I will not continue this conversation if the goal is to judge, look down upon, or try to ‘convince’ each other.”
“I’m happy to share where I’m coming from about this, but I will not let this become a debate. That won’t be good for any of us.”
- Don’t wait.
The longer you wait to resolve an issue, the more you prolong your own suffering. Dealing with the situation up front – or as soon as possible – may keep it from worsening. In addition, you may be pleasantly surprised to find that the other person is not holding as tightly to her position as you imagined, or she may even be thinking something entirely different.
Setting boundaries offers several benefits including reducing anxiety, making the world more manageable, and strengthening relationships. When everyone knows where you stand, there are no unpleasant surprises and no one is caught off guard. If you struggle with these skills, therapy can help. For more information, contact Carapace Counseling.