Learning to Set Boundaries Could Be the Best Gift You Give Your Loved Ones This Christmas

Reduce your stress and guilt with these proactive steps.
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Reduce your stress and guilt with these proactive steps.

I recently saw a social media post from Dr. Henry Cloud, a leading researcher and author on boundaries. A friend of his had received a text from her parents. In it, they stated their disappointment in her for not spending enough time with them over the holidays last year and went on to say that they hoped she wouldn’t eat and run again this year.

We can’t help but cringe at that one. We’ve all been there, whether overstepping our own boundaries or being on the receiving end. As a marriage and family therapist, I often hear clients talk about how difficult boundary setting can be, particularly with their families. A boundary, as defined by Dr. Cloud and Dr. John Townsend in their New York Times bestselling book Boundaries, “is a personal property line that marks those things for which we are responsible.” There are two different types of boundaries: external and internal. External boundaries give us physical distance from others. Internal boundaries, however, are what help us take responsibility for our own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, as well as help to keep them distinct from those of others.

It’s clear that the parents in this scenario have unmet expectations of their daughter. However, instead of talking about them with her openly, they address them passive-aggressively (and in a text, no less). A more helpful approach would be Mom and Dad taking responsibility for their own thoughts and feelings and giving their daughter an opportunity to meet their need or state her own. But they didn’t—and it’s likely that your family may not take the ideal approach either. If we want to set boundaries, it is up to us to choose a response in these pivotal moments with our loved ones that allow us to define our own boundaries.

We can be in charge of what feelings, attitudes, thoughts, choices, and behaviors we let into our lives from those around us. I love the visual that clinical adviser and author Pia Mellody gives regarding internal boundaries in her book Facing Codependence. She describes them as a bulletproof vest with small doors that open only toward the inside. You get to decide if the doors stay open or shut, what you let in and let out, and how you say yes and no.

So, how can we manage the stress while maintaining our peace with others? Here are three practical ways that we can shift the idea of “boundaries” from theory to practice.

01. Prioritize—and Cut Out the Rest

Setting boundaries reduces anxiety and helps you feel in charge of your own life. When you are clear with yourself and others about what to expect and what you are—and aren’t—comfortable with, there tends to be less anticipatory anxiety and “what if” scenarios.

Are you stressed out about going to your in-laws’ for Christmas Eve dinner because you don’t have time? Or is it because you are anxious about interacting with them? Or even that you have something else you’d rather be doing? You can’t set good boundaries if you don’t know where you stand. So identify your physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual limits. What can you tolerate and accept? What makes you feel uncomfortable or stressed?

In her most recent column for Verily, author Laura Vanderkam writes: “I suspect that when it comes down to it, people call the holidays ‘crazy’ because doing so turns out to be an all-purpose excuse to get out of stuff they don’t want to do anyway. That’s fine, but as with life in general, ‘I don’t have time’ really means ‘it’s not a priority.’ That’s as true in December as it is in any other month.”

If you always go to your mother’s on Christmas Eve, but this year you really want to create your own ritual of going to a Christmas Eve candlelit service, you can prioritize that. Instead of spending all night at your mom’s, give yourself enough time to leave early. How can you break the news to mom? Try something like, “This year, I really want to start creating some of my own rituals, just like you have. I love seeing you on Christmas Eve, so I am going to come early this year and help you cook, but I will be leaving at (insert time) to attend a service that I have been wanting to try.”

And if you can’t cut stressful things—such as family—out entirely, develop a game plan for coping with the stress. For example, one client of mine realized that overbearing family members caused her stress. So she developed a plan: coloring. With so many adult coloring books available, she decided to pack a small one in her purse, and if at some point before or after the family dinner, things became too stressful, she would engage the kids in a coloring activity where she could color and relax as well.

02. Learn How to Kindly Say No

Have you ever said yes when you really meant no and only realized after the fact that you had the freedom to choose? You’re not alone.

When it comes to setting boundaries, the biblical charge to “let your yes be yes and your no be no” holds true. Agreeing to one thing means you’re foregoing something else. Let’s not make a habit this season of saying no to ourselves. We gain tremendous freedom when we say no without guilt and yes without resentment.

Say your mother wants to come over and open presents with your husband and kids. Yet you planned on spending the morning with just your husband and children. Recognize that your desire is valid. Recognize that your mother’s desire is also valid. Then make a plan. Perhaps say, “We’d love to open gifts together, but we decided as a family to have the morning to ourselves this year. Would you like to join us at 1 p.m., and we can save opening your gifts until then? And would you like to have lunch together afterward?” Saying no in any form may make you bristle, especially for a sensitive person. But communicating limits and talking about expectations in a kind but assertive manner becomes easier over time.

03. Don’t Expect Others to Change

Expect the expected. We often hear the opposite, right? But when you know what to expect, you don’t get as easily caught off guard or disappointed by the sometimes hurtful yet usually well-intentioned actions of our loved ones.

How? Because this type of outlook puts you in the driver’s seat. For example, if your aunt always asks if you have a boyfriend yet, you might expect to hear the same this holiday season. You can anticipate her cringeworthy question by preparing a loving response that sets a limit instead. “Actually, I don’t have a boyfriend this year. But I made new friends in my neighborhood!” or, “Actually, I went back to school. I’d love to share some of the other things happening in my life!” Similarly, if a colleague always asks you to take over her portion of a project because she wants time off to visit her family for the holidays, you can prepare yourself with, “I wish I could, but I’ve got so many commitments this holiday season that I know our work will suffer if I say yes.”

Like many other skills, practice makes perfect. I have seen clients who were chronic people-pleasers their whole lives learn how to say no and set limits. In the process of learning to establish boundaries, they describe an immense amount of personal freedom. But it didn’t come overnight. With time, practice, and compassion for yourself and others, you may be surprised by how boundaries can be an unexpected gift to you and your loved ones this holiday season.