Setting Healthy Boundaries with Family

It’s that exciting time of year when so many of us are packing our bags and heading home for the holidays. But despite what you might see on TV or in the Hallmark aisle, not everyone’s family blends seamlessly together in matching pajama sets sipping hot coco this time of year.

Many of us have more fraught relationships with the ones we love. And spending time together in close quarters around this time of year can be tough.

While I talk a lot about burnout as it relates to our work lives, our families and relationships are a huge source of stress, too. So this season especially, let’s commit to taking care of ourselves by being mindful of how we set and protect boundaries with our family members.

And to be clear: setting boundaries doesn’t mean we love them any less. It just means we love and respect our own needs, too. And when done right, these boundaries can ensure we all can happily spend more time together, too.

First, Find Your Triggers

I write in my forthcoming book about a time when I was at home and felt pulled in so many directions. My mom wanted me to join her on a walk with the dog. My dad wanted to me to talk through a negotiation situation he was facing at work. And I wanted to get a stress-busting run in before heading to my best friend’s bridal shower. Guess what didn’t happen? My run, of course!

This sent me down a shame spiral of feeling bad about rushing through my dad’s situation with him, and feeling like there was a lot I still wanted to discuss. I felt even worse for being annoyed with my mom’s desire to walk when I was really desperately in need of a stress-busting cardio-boosting run. And to top it off, I ended up being a late Maid of Honor, trying – and failing – to do my make-up in the car on the way there. It was a total mess of a morning.

Sound familiar? Being with family can really crowd your routine, for better and for worse. And while I want to be patient, kind, and adaptive, what I learned about myself that day is that I can’t show up fully unless I’ve taken time for myself first. For me, that means that when I’m stressed I have to get in real heart-pumping exercise to feel better, but it’s different for all of us.

Ask yourself: when am I triggered by family members? One Bossed Up Bootcamp alum who I spotlight in my book shared her experience of having a mother who continuously asked about when she would become a grandmother, which was an incredibly sensitive, triggering topic for her to have to respond to out of the blue.

When or with whom do you feel especially on guard? Identifying your triggers is the first step to putting up the boundaries you need.

(Optionally) Explain the Impact

Next, decide whether or not a direct conversation with that person is warranted. Do you think they’re unaware of the impact their behaviors are having on you? Do you think they have the potential to change? If yes, it might be worth sitting down to have a direct conversation with them when tempers are cool.

Tell them: when you do X, I feel Y. “When you comment on my weight at the dinner table, I feel completely attacked and embarrassed. And I don’t want to feel like I can’t be myself around my own family.”

Often – but not always – making the other folks aware of the impact their behavior is having on you can engender a new level of empathy and compassion.

And you’ll also want to paint a clear picture of what needs to change. “Dad, if you want to ask me about when my girlfriend and I will finally tie the knot, I’d appreciate it if we can have that conversation privately.”

Make a Plan

Whether or not you choose to have that direct conversation, give yourself permission to put your needs first, including when spending time with the ones you love over the holidays. Have a plan in place for how you’re going to practice self-care.

For instance, if I waited for my family to say to me, “hey, we’ve got nothing going on here, why don’t you go for that run or go take that yoga class,” I would be waiting forever! Now, especially when I’m staying with family, I know that I need to prioritize getting in my stress-busting exercise myself.

So know what you need to buffer against the stress that sometimes comes with family time, and make it a priority.

Consider the Consequences

Finally, know what you’re going to do if and when those boundaries are crossed again. Will you take a walk around the block to cool down? Will you go listen to a 5-minute meditation? Will you send out an SOS text to your besties for back-up?

Or will you take a more direct approach in reminding your family members that you expect and deserve their respect? Make it clear what the consequences will be if your boundaries aren’t respected – including up to removing yourself from that gathering or that relationship, if need be.

Listen, no family relationships are perfect, and everyone’s situation is different. So if going home for the holidays can be a stressful endeavor for you, know that there’s no shame in that. And you can still take steps to practice compassion for yourself and your loved ones, while protecting the boundaries that are important to you.

Have you taken steps to draw healthy boundaries with family?

I’d love to hear from you in the comment section below! And however the holidays are for you this year, I’m wishing you a happy, healthy end to 2018!


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