The holiday season is a time when we tend to have more face to face interaction with our loved ones. Between holiday parties, festive outings, and fancy meals it is inevitable we will come in contact with humans who bring up feelings of love, peace, and comfort… and some who “trigger” us into a state of anxiety, fear, frustration, or hurt. Despite the glowing lights and joyful tunes our wintery wonderlands can also be a reminder of unsolved quarrels and deep-seeded pain.
Healthy relationship with others, and with ourselves, begin with setting healthy boundaries. Boundaries can be physical, mental, emotional, and even social. Some people have loose boundaries and some rigid boundaries, but, like most things in life, healthy boundaries seem to be found somewhere in the middle.
One of the primary purposes of setting healthy boundaries is self-care. The age old adage, “before you help others, you must first help yourself” holds some merit here. Growing up I often heard the phrase, “you cannot lift another soul until you are standing on higher ground.”
If we truly desire to be selfless and help those around us, we first have to take inventory of the person standing in our own shoes. For example, a well-rested, well-fed, and self-loving mother can offer much more to her children than a worn out, worn down, and self-loathing one can. The same goes for all of us! It is when we bring our whole, happy, and healthy self to a relationship (at home, at school, or at work) that we truly have something positive to offer.
In all of our relationships, setting boundaries is a form of developing self-identity. Boundaries help us clearly see where we are giving another person our personal power. When we identify not as a individual A PART of a group or a relationship, but AS the group or relationship we give away our personal power. This becomes especially problematic when those relationship or group dynamics change over time. For example, when a relationship unexpectedly ends an intense sense of loss or depression can settle in if a person has made their personal identify dependent on their partner. Healthy boundaries and a sense of self-identity can help someone determine what they will and will not hold themselves responsible for.
To truly develop and cultivate healthy boundaries it takes some serious practice. I have discovered my boundary setting is also not always well received, but as I continue to practice those who I interact with have adapted, and have even come to appreciate, the change in my approach. Instead of harboring resentment or feeling discontent, I can now more consistently communicate clearly without all the emotional attachment. I am not perfect, and sometimes I fall into old habits, but I continue to practice. The personal peace and power I now feel in the majority of my relationships is well worth the effort. Might I suggest a few simple places to begin?
Pay Attention to Your Emotions
Signs of unhealthy boundaries can present themselves as feelings of resentment, discomfort, or being overwhelmed by another human. In order to set a boundary it is helpful to first identify where your personal boundaries are getting violated or crossed. Remember, boundaries are extremely personal and may look different from person to person.
As you interact with others, begin to take note of moments where you feel uncomfortable or taken advantage of. Ask, “What is causing these negative emotions?” “What is it about this interaction or this person’s expectation of me that bothers me so much?” Sometimes asking the right questions can help us identify where negative emotions are coming from and specifically what personal boundaries are being threatened.
Your Lane or My Lane? Your Job or My Job?
As humans we are busy getting into each others lanes ALL DAY LONG. We rarely simply take responsibility for what is truly ours, our personal decisions and reactions, and stay out of everyone else’s decisions and reactions. We feel the need to “insert” our opinion, “change” someone’s mind, or “fix” a problem.
When face to face with daily human interactions and challenging situations I ask myself, “Is this their lane? Or my lane?” Another way to phrase it is, “Is this their job? Or my job?” Most of the time the “problem” or “challenge” is simply NOT MINE to own, it is not “in my lane”, and is not “my job” to fix or monitor.
Let me give you a hypothetical example to demonstrate the principle…
For example, my mom and my sister get into an argument. They each call to tell me ALL about their hurt and their frustration. I ask myself, “Their lane? Or my lane?” Truth be told. The argument has NOTHING to do with me. I could jump in and get involved. I could even offer my opinion to who is “right” and who is “wrong”. I could also offer potential solutions. Or! I can stay in my lane. I can chose to not own a situation that is not mine to own. It is not “my job” to fix their problem.
What can I do to set a healthy boundary? I can offer love and compassion by saying, “I am so sorry you are feeling hurt.” I can also say, “You are a smart woman! I am confident you have the ability to navigate this tricky situation. You’ve got this!”
Of course, there is a chance my mom and my sister are NOT going to like my response. You see, they WANT me to take sides. That is precisely why they called, whether they know it or now. Misery loves company. They WANT me to come up with a solution. At the very least, they WANT me to validate their feelings. But! It is not my lane and it is not my job.
If they persist to try to drag me in, I can practice setting a boundary. Without emotional attachment, I can say, “Mom, I am sorry you and _____ are fighting. I love you both and am choosing to stay out of the middle of this situation. I am confident this would be better resolved between the two of you.” I have set my boundary. Whether or not my mom chooses to listen or honor that boundary is her choice. Regardless of her reaction, I will honor my own boundary and can do so without getting emotionally charges. At this point I choose to simply shut my mouth. This may be the hardest part of all.
Over time, both my mom and my sister will know what to expect from me in this type of situation. They can EXPECT love and compassion. They can EXPECT my encouragement and confidence in who they are and their ability to solve problems on their own. And! They can EXPECT I will not take responsibility for something that is not mine.
Communicate Boundaries Without Emotional Attachment
Be direct and clear when setting boundaries. With some you may not need to be vocal at all when setting boundaries, but with others you may need to be more assertive. Practicing the dialogue on your own can make boundary setting conversations go smoother when the real situation presents itself. One key factor to communicating your boundary is doing so clearly, as fact, without high-charged emotion.
For example, your mother-in-law calls to ask when you and your family would be coming to the house this year to spend Christmas. You feel as though she always just assumes you will spend your holidays with her and you hold some resentment to the way she tries to manipulate the situation (at least that is your perception). While this IS YOUR LANE, you only have to own YOU and YOUR reaction, not HER and HER reaction.
You may feel inclined to call back and responded from an emotionally-charged place. “You always do this! You always assume we will pick up our entire lives to come be with you. You always assume we will work around your schedule. We would really like to have our own Christmas and start making our own family traditions with our children. Why does it always have to be about you?” That is one to do it, but setting boundaries can be a peaceful things, without all the shame, blame, guilt.
Instead you might simply state, “This year our family has decided to stay home for Christmas. We will not be coming to your home for Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.”
No doubt your mother in law will have questions and may even be angry. You can continue to respond with fact, not emotion. “Our family is growing and our children are getting older. We are excited to create some new family traditions at home this year.”
It is not your job to own her reaction or her feelings. That leads us to the next topic.
What do boundaries feel like?
“It is not my job to fix others.”
“It is okay if others get angry.”
“It is ok to say no.”
“It is not my job to take responsibility for others.”
“I do not have to anticipate the needs of others.”
“It is my job to make me happy.”
“Nobody has to agree with me.”
“I have a right to my own feelings.”
“I am enough.”
I have run across this list (author unknown) a few times in the last year and I really like it. I helps me check in and evaluate, without judgement, where I am at in my practice. Boundary setting can be difficult. Psychologist and coach Dana Gionta, Ph.D. said, “Setting boundaries takes courage, practice, and support.” Start small. Celebrate small victories. Keep practicing. You’ve got this!