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Dealing with Difficult Family Dynamics During the Holidays

Inevitably in the month of November, as a counselor, I notice many clients sharing their fears and anxieties around spending time with family during the holidays.

Often these fears stem from experience – both in the past and the present. Whether it’s a well meaning aunt asking if you are seeing anyone, or even worse, comments like “Are you going to be single forever?” can cut deep. I’ve had clients who have shared nosy relatives ask about when they are going to have children when the couple has decided not to have any.

Being around extended family can evoke a lot of emotion. Our family of origin is where we likely first experienced shame, condemnation or ridicule from either parents and /or siblings.

Too often, childhood is where people experienced traumatic events some of which were never resolved or even acknowledged. While we want to think of family as a warm, safe and inviting place, too often it becomes the source of much distress.

Since we cannot change who we are related to, it is important to realize we are not at the mercy of what family wants from us either. That’s where boundaries come in. Many people do not fully realize what boundaries are, why we need to set them let alone how. It can feel heart racing for some to think about setting boundaries with people who seem to think they have a license to demand things or pry into our personal lives uninvited.

Boundaries is a word that can be misunderstood and certainly misused. If someone behaves in insensitive, manipulative or abusive ways, and they know enough “counseling speak” to be dangerous they may make demands under the guise of “they are setting a boundary”.

But healthy boundaries won’t feel manipulative. Whether you are on the setting end or the receiving end, healthy boundaries- though they can feel uncomfortable to set initially for the unpracticed- often feel darn good after.

So how do you know when you need to set a good healthy boundary? Your body and gut in particular as well as your thoughts can be your guide. When you find yourself feeling stressed out as you think about the holidays and family gatherings, begin to ask yourself "who and what do I feel the most distress about?"

You might for example realize that it’s your mom who is demanding that you arrive and stay until a certain time, but you would rather spend part of the day elsewhere. It may be that an uncle who once made an inappropriate comment is going to be there and you would prefer to not be in his company.

What is your most pervasive thought about spending the holiday with family? Pay attention to that thought. Name it. Write it down. It might sound like “I’m feeling anxious about spending time with extended family at Thanksgiving because of …”.

Now get specific. What is it about this person/ place / event that feels uncomfortable, stressful or psychologically unsafe? As you name the specifics that come to mind, notice your body. Where do you feel areas of tension? What else is your body telling you? Notice your gut- what sensations do you feel there? Our bodies will give us many clues if we will only listen and not dismiss them.

Once you have taken the time to engage in the above exercise- being reflective and identifying and naming specific points of fear, worry, confusion or anxiety then you are ready to consider what you need to stay both emotionally safe and get other needs met as well.

When I speak with clients about setting appropriate boundaries, what often comes up is the acknowledgment of why they have not set boundaries in the past. Often clients will share about the fears of loss of the relationship, and /or the fear that people won’t like them or that they will be labeled as mean, unkind or be thought of or actually called a bitch.

By the way, anyone can experience tension and discomfort in setting boundaries initially. Instead of chewing on the thoughts about your fears, It may be helpful to shift your thoughts to something more accurate and focus on:

Boundaries help us honor our self, stay emotionally safe, while often actually enhancing the relationship.

With boundary setting, there is no vagueness. People know where you stand. They begin to know what is ok and not ok, acceptable and unacceptable. Many of my clients who begin to set boundaries describe it as “empowering.”

I recently watched a movie where the woman ( main character) has a fiance who breaks up with her days before Thanksgiving, and now has to “face her family alone at the holidays.”

Feeling unable and ill equipped to do that, she hires a man to pose as her fiancé and join her for the family festivities. Predictably, it all comes out in the end that he is a fake fiancé and now the main character experiences even more shame for having lied. The movie also portrays a very controlling, critical mother.

While it’s just a movie, it is a reminder of the great lengths people will go to cope with difficult family dynamics and the feelings that result. Short of hiring a fake partner, boundaries are a “free way” to begin to take responsibility for your own emotional safety and overall wellbeing.

Once you are aware of what you need, then learning to declare it is next. The main thing to understand about setting healthy boundaries is that you are not asking for permission, acceptance, validation or anything other than learning to care for your own emotional welfare and needs. With boundaries, we do not ask- we tell.

It is also incredibly important to work through the myth that setting boundaries means you are selfish. This is a message that many people have grown up with that was either blatant or subtle. It has often been a message imparted to girls and women, who are more likely raised to be compliant, and go along.

A boundary can be small and taken in baby steps, or, it can be a bigger departure from the usual family dynamics. Here’s some examples:

“No mom, I won’t come over at 8a, but when I arrive at 11a I’ll be happy to help out.”

No, I am not willing to come to Thanksgiving if Uncle Tom is going to be there and he is still drinking.”

“ I am willing to talk with you about anything other than politics.”

“ If you do ____ again, I will need to do ____( end the conversation, leave, etc.).”

“That comment felt demeaning. I am not ok with that. I’ll need you to change how you speak with me or I will need to leave this conversation.”

Additionally, it will be imperative that you keep your own boundaries. Therefore your first boundary is with yourself. Promise yourself if ____ happens, then you will do ____ to respond differently than you have before.

What about the people that you long to have a more loving, close and emotionally safe relationship with? In that situation, it’s not always about boundaries- though they may still be necessary.

Relationships with safe people require risk and vulnerability. The idea is to know who is safe and who is not. That is also where listening to the clues your body gives you can be helpful.

Some people are generally kind and safe, but perhaps a bit insensitive or not socially or emotionally aware.

If you are dealing with someone you believe to be generally emotionally safe, but just a tad off the mark in their social/ emotional awareness skills, you might choose to take the risk and share vulnerably that “their last comment hurt your feelings and you would prefer to not talk about ___ at this time.”

Not every situation calls for a hard boundary. Listen to the clues your body gives you so you can discern who you hope to have closer, safer and more meaningful relationships with, versus who is not a safe person for you (or perhaps they are not safe in the moment- or not safe regarding a particular topic.)

The more awareness you have the easier it will be to know how to respond. That will also require you to stay present and focused on what you notice internally so you can maintain good self control ( self regulation) of your own emotions.

We hope that this year, you will take the time to reflect, identify who or what is causing you to feel uncomfortable or distressed, and then set the boundaries that will allow you to create safe space and holiday gatherings that can feel calm, cool and enjoyable.

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