Don’t know how to set boundaries with family over the holidays?
Setting boundaries with family is hard, but especially over the holidays. Some people don’t share that experience–they can’t wait to get home for Christmas and spend time with their parents and extended families. This is usually the expectation when we are talking to co-workers and friends. However, what do we do when we feel conflicted about spending time with our own families?
Many therapy clients I see come to me talking about family functions and gatherings especially over the holidays. Their conflict shows that they care–they love their parents and want to please them. And if they are Christian and/or Asian, this expectation to always love and please may feel even heavier.
These values to honor are a good thing. However, you may feel discouraged or offended during these gatherings. There may be family members who are disrespectful– or parents who are controlling or critical. There may be a past hurt that was never addressed or is minimized by your family.
As a result, you may feel guilty for feeling conflicted and know you will feel doubly guilty for not going. You may feel you have an obligation to attend. Or you may receive slack from your family. And many family members just genuinely want to see you and you want to see them as well. And it’s the holidays, a time for family, so if you don’t spend time with them, you may feel lonely. It’s a conflict for sure!
Here are some tips to deal with this conflict:
1. Assess the extent of the damage and set boundaries if needed.
Some of my therapy clients are able to go to family gatherings relatively unscathed. However, many of my therapy clients feel depressed for days after going to a family function. Many times their interactions end in arguments or unspoken snide remarks that bring back old wounds (or new ones!).
I always tell my counseling clients that your first priority is always your physical and mental health. If anything in your life causes you harm to your physical or mental health, it is time to re-evaluate the commitment to this person, job or event. No one is going to take care of you but you, so you have a responsibility to care for yourself, regardless of what others expect of you.
2. Be prepared for resistance.
Some families will respect your boundaries. Others may feel hurt or not understand, or just get angry. Understand that you cannot make everyone happy and whenever you say no to someone, a lot of the time, they won’t be happy.
Don’t let them guilt trip you or make you feel down for your decision to take care of yourself. Accept the fact that they won’t be happy, some for good reasons, some for bad. You are only responsible for your own feelings and to act respectfully towards your parents. You are not responsible to make them happy.
What If I Still Want to Go But Am Dreading It?
Some of us either don’t want to deal with the backlash from family members (which is totally understandable), or feel for the most part they can handle the gathering, but feel anxious. Maybe you feel things are very unpredictable at these gatherings, or you just never know what someone is going to say or do. Or you are just dreading going. Here are some tips:
1. Set emotional boundaries.
Lots of my therapy clients feel obligated to go to a family gathering and be around them, in the mix of all the drama for the entire evening. Some have family members, especially in Asian culture, ask personal offensive questions or make offensive remarks (e.g. you are fat, or how much money do you make?)
As a result, you may feel exhausted and overwhelmed by the end of the evening. I usually advise my counseling clients to be emotionally prepared to thwart these questions or be ok to politely decline to answer, and then respectfully excuse yourself to use the restroom or take a phone call. You don’t have to engage emotionally with everyone that you talk to, especially if they are making you feel stressed out or offending you.
2. Set physical boundaries.
This may be obvious but if you are a “good” son or daughter, you may feel obligated to be around everyone 24/7 and engage. I would say it’s always good to show respect and be present, but be mindful of your own bandwidth. Maybe some of you are expected to serve everyone hand and foot, clean the kitchen, and then drive everyone home all over the city. All of that is good, but it can sometimes feel like a heavy expectation and one can feel like they are being used.
If you feel yourself slowly shrinking down, take some time to be away. Go to the TV room, play with the kids or dogs, or just go somewhere and chill on your phone or call your friends. You can also set a time limit on how long you will stay. Bring your significant other, or your kids or your dog and have a code word for “I need to get out of here. Now.”
3. Prepare for any negative interactions with family members.
I also advise clients to prepare themselves for any negative interactions. Preparing for something stressful can often help you feel more in control of a situation.
So if you are dreading having to watch Uncle #7 get drunk and fight with Uncle #8 and 9, or if you “can’t wait” to hear Aunt #3 compare you to her own kids who went to Harvard on a full scholarship, anticipate those landmines.
And then prepare yourself to disengage emotionally, to respectfully stand up for yourself, or physically remove yourself from the situation.
Conclusion: Settting boundaries with your family can often be the most loving thing you do. For them and you.
We all want to show respect and love to our families. And for the most part, they love us too. We want the holidays to be a good time where everyone is happy. Remember that it doesn’t have to be perfect. Life is messy, every family has drama, and we can’t choose our family, they are given to us for life.
We can be aware of our own bandwidth–emotional and physical and give as much as we can. And when those stores start to dwindle, we can take responsibility for our health and set good boundaries so we can enjoy our holidays together.
About the author: Lia Huynh is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who specializes in relationship therapy in the San Jose, Milpitas and Fremont areas. She works with clients who have relationship problems and need help working those out through counseling. If you would like to find out more about therapy with Lia, click here. If you want to find out more about individual therapy to work on family relationships, click here.