Setting Boundaries - Ways to reduce anxiety, depression and stress during the Festive Season and life in general


Reduce anxiety, stress and depression by setting healthy boundaries. Find out how by reading this blog....


As we approach the festive season and discussions begin about who is hosting which family gathering, it's quite common for that sense of panic to take hold. Whether it's the idea of family members you're dreading seeing after a year of successful avoidance, family dramas mixed with alcohol, or the stress of entertaining, this happy time can often lead to a world of dread making it suitably named silly season. That's why today, I wanted to look at the importance of boundaries (especially at this time of year) and at some strategies to help you cope with the holiday period in a way that reduces stress, anxiety and potential depression!

What's the difference between defences and boundaries?

Before we can discuss the importance of boundaries, it's important to first distinguish boundaries from defences. Defences are a blanket approach designed to sabotage interaction, to deflect and protect yourself from an outsider's attack. Defences include things like sharp responses, contradictions and showing indifference to the person trying to engage in conversation. In contrast, boundaries are there to protect you from only undesired interaction. Boundaries can be modified. You may have hard boundaries with somebody you don't know but much more relaxed boundaries with someone you trust. In this way, boundaries aren't as one size fits all as you can modify how strong or strict a boundary you maintain depending on the person. These can be things like who you're comfortable letting close to you (or touching you), whether you're likely to tolerate someone being late or comments being made or even how someone makes you feel.

Why do boundaries matter?

Boundaries are like a first line of defence for protecting ourselves from unwanted harm. Well maintained boundaries ensure that people interact with you only in a way you're comfortable with so that you're not left feeling violated, used or betrayed. While it can be easier to set up strong boundaries with people we don't know, doing so with those we care about or love can be slightly trickier, especially when past behaviour means they expect something other than what you actually want. This inner conflict between continuing with the status quo and requesting change is often the reason why so many people are left feeling anxious, stressed or dreading of the holiday period and the expectation that they'll be subjected to boundary crossing behaviour by loved ones.

Setting up healthy boundaries for the holidays

To create successful holidays, there are a few simple things you can proactively do that can make a world of difference!

• Make a plan! It can be easy to feel like everything is happening to you and you have no say. By making a plan about what you can manage in advance, it gives you a bit of a sense of control and can mean you have coping strategies ready to go when/if you need them.

• Have everyone in the family describe what their ideal version of the holidays is (timing, cost, who attends, food, activities etc) so you can troubleshoot potential conflicts ahead of time and can work together to create the best possible outcome for everyone.

• Be clear on the boundaries, especially when important boundaries have been broken in the past. Ie, if you're not here by ... time, we'll start the meal without you. It may be helpful to give examples from when your boundaries had been broken when discussing them with the perpetrator. Just be aware that it can take time and practice before the person who broke the boundary readily engages in open discussion instead of deflecting or getting defensive. Ideally, you want to bring these discussions up now so there are a few weeks for discussion (and time to cool down if needed).

• Be clear about what you're committing to for the holidays and make sure you get similar commitment from others involved. If you agreed last year to do Christmas with your partner's family, make sure you stick to it. If you decided no more than 10 people at the table, make sure everyone is clear on the number and guests.

• Know when it's time to walk away. As much as we're told that we should love and accept our family no matter what, there's a point where the relationships are so toxic and unsalvageable that you need to put yourself first and walk away, no matter how painful or uncomfortable it may be.

Remember that big changes don't always happen overnight, especially when dealing with people. It's quite possible that you'll still face conflict or need to articulate your boundaries a few times before the other person truly starts to understand and respect them! While they're trying, show appreciation because like any relationship this too is part of a learning curve. This is why it's so important to have a good support network or psychologist who you can talk to while you're re-establishing what's acceptable to you. Not only will it reassure you that you're doing the right thing for you but it can often be what's needed to encourage you to keep going.

Addressing 5 of the most common boundaries breached during the Festive Season

As we approach the festive season and discussions begin about who is hosting which family gathering, it's quite common for that sense of panic to take hold. Continuing on from the above discussion, I thought it could be helpful to zoom in on some of the most common boundary breaches experienced over the holidays so you're aware and ready to address them!

When not everyone sees the 'happy' in happy holidays

It's ok for you to love a holiday and for your partner to dislike it You may have grown up with memories of it being the one occasion where everyone came together and things just felt wonderful. They on the other hand may only remember feelings of extreme stress and tension. The important thing is to communicate and be understanding of one another. In one example I read about, a husband would transform into an absolute grouch when the holidays approached and it was affecting his wife's enjoyment of her favourite time of year. By making her boundaries clear and highlighting how his behaviour was affecting her, she was able to communicate her concerns and belief that his mood shouldn't affect her (or other people's) enjoyment of the holidays while also recognising that she understood why he didn't like the holidays. Instead of going into an attack and blame approach, they sat down and discussed what they could do to get the best solution and whether there was anything they could do to help her husband better enjoy the festive season and change how he responded to it moving forward. If you face a similar situation, do your best to find a common ground in which you can celebrate together but be prepared for the reality that it may be better to do different things so that you can both enjoy the day.

Buying gifts

We all want to show our loved ones how much they mean to us but gift giving can often become an over the top, stressful experience. If your family has the tendency to equate the amount of money spent with their perceived worth and this doesn't sit right with you, make sure you have a discussion ahead of time about what you belief is a reasonable amount to spend and to make it clear that spending in excess of $x is more than what you're comfortable doing. Alternately, you may suggest that instead of buying gifts for everyone that your family participate in a kris kringle with each person getting one gift.

Being black sheep

It's one of those strange phenomenon where when you catch up with relatives you're thrown back into the dynamic you had when you were a kid. So if you were the prodigy child, the focus will be on your successes. If in contrast, you were the black sheep, expect fingers to point at you when things go wrong (no matter how old you get or what you achieve in the interim). This is enough to make anyone start to feel anxious or depressed about an upcoming family gathering. The best case scenario involves a discussion with all family members about how you wish to be treated and their being receptive to it (likely with a bit of reminding through the holidays). However, if you find that attending family gatherings leads only to people berating or abusing you, there may not be an ability to maintain a boundary and so physical distance can become necessary.

No you host!

Hosting a giant family gathering can often be a stressful thing, especially when the person most likely to host is the one who tries to please everyone or if your family works with a rotating host,  it's quite possible that there's some reluctance or hesitation in hosting. The important thing about hosting is to remember that boundaries are not only with other people but also self-imposed. If you expect more of yourself than you are capable of, you'll drive yourself mad long before guests arrive and may then be exhausted and grumpy when they do finally show up. Sit down beforehand and work out what you're capable of managing and when you need help. Similarly, set the rules on what you're comfortable doing when you are the host. Just because your mother, aunt or grandmother does things a certain way, doesn't mean you have to. And if they're the type to criticise, highlighting consequences can often be a really effective strategy (ie if you don't like the way I do things, you won't be welcome at my house for Christmas dinner). When they host, they can do things the way they like but they need to respect you as well. By setting clear boundaries early on, you not only make things more manageable for yourself but also set expectations for others.

Eat some more

Many people have that relative who believes that in order to be a good host, you should force feed your guests until they're rolling out the door. While their actions may be motivated by good intention, it often overlooks the desires of guests who may naturally eat less, not like certain foods or have dietary restrictions. To avoid being the target of force-feeding or offending the host, acknowledge that you know how much effort they went to in preparing the meal and thank them for this but explain that you will help yourself as you see fit.  

If you'd like some more strategies for maintaining healthy boundaries, I recommend getting yourself a copy of "Where to Draw the Line" by Anne Katherine, M.A. It's been recommended by a number of psychologists and having read the book, I can definitely see why!

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