So many wonderful things are possible during the holidays: Quiet time to expand our souls, the chance to embrace generosity and good will, opportunities to enjoy the warmth of our families and friends, and be grateful for the wonderful relationships in our lives.
But many people suffer through this season, becoming increasingly frazzled, resentful, and hurt with every new disappointing interaction, extra commitment, and unrealistic expectation put on them. (And often, feeling most hurt and put-upon by the people who should love them the best). I’ve been a marriage and family therapist for a loooong time now, and there is one thing I consistently see in people who do NOT have a good time over the holidays: Bad boundaries.
When Boundaries Are a Problem Over The Holidays
When Boundaries Are Too Soft: When people are too passive and don’t speak up about their needs and feelings, they often wind up feeling put-upon, mistreated or disrespected by family members, children, friends or partners, and resentments brew.
When Boundaries Are Too Hard: When people are too rigid and inflexible with their boundaries, they often feel tense, stressed out, and irritable by all the assaults to their preferences that this season can fling. Furthermore, friends and family members may feel put-upon, mistreated or disrespected by them — and it creates unnecessary conflict.
When Boundaries Are Not Considered: When people aren’t self-aware and clear about their own limits and struggle to hold healthy boundaries with themselves, they overcommit time and energy, have unrealistic expectations of themselves, over-indulge in unhealthy ways, and are prone to overspending. This leaving them feeling stressed out, overwhelmed, exhausted, and emotionally and financially depleted by the time New Year’s rolls around. Not fun at all.
Because these kinds of boundary problems are so common (and so darn avoidable, with advance planning) I thought I’d put together some holiday-specific boundary advice for you.
Listen, and learn specific, actionable tips and tools that you can use to set healthy limits with your self and others, and also be selectively flexible.
I sincerely hope that it helps you stay in a good place over the next month, and enhance all the wonderful moments that this season has to offer.
Can you have healthy boundaries, and still be “nice?”
Have you ever felt taken advantage of, not heard, or just unappreciated? So many of us know what it’s like to be ignored in meetings, to be interrupted when we’re talking, or to feel invisible at a party. It’s no fun to be walked all over. Yet this is a very common experience. As a life coach and therapist, I can’t tell you how many clients I’ve worked with that have experienced just that and don’t know what to do about it.
There are several misconceptions and fears around speaking up for oneself that block us from being assertive. And, let’s face it, most of us haven’t had anyone sit down and teach us the tools and skills involved in setting boundaries. But boundaries are, in fact, some of the basic building blocks of assertiveness, confidence, and even self-worth. They are the invisible bubbles we create to help us be safe, happy and respected.
If you are like most clients I’ve worked with and, really, most people, you might think being assertive and setting boundaries is selfish, will make you look like a braggadocios bully, or even leave you without any friends (or all of the above, am I right?). So let’s correct some of these fallacies about boundaries once and for all and clear a path to assertive living!
Misconceptions, Fears and Realities About Healthy Boundaries
Misconception #1: Boundaries are Selfish
The classic example of setting a boundary is saying “No,” whether that looks like letting a colleague know their behavior isn’t okay with you, not giving a friend what they want, or letting a family member experience the consequences of their own behavior. You might be thinking, “But if you are a good friend you don’t say no,” or “Isn’t it selfish of me to ‘abandon’ someone I care about?”
Here’s the good news:
The Reality: Good, generous, kind people set boundaries. By protecting us from being spread too thin or just put in uncomfortable situations, saying no and setting boundaries allows us to give more of what we can. Boundaries free up our resources to help those we care about more effectively. In fact, setting boundaries with our loved ones gives them the opportunity to become more self-aware and grow. In short, boundaries help us and others be our best selves.
Misconception #2: Boundaries are Aggressive
We’ve all had the pleasure of knowing a social bully. He’s the loud office mate who overpowers everyone else in meetings or the girlfriend around whom you always find yourself feeling small and meek, intimidated. Often, being assertive gets confused with being aggressive. But wait…
The Reality: Calm, Humble People Set Boundaries
Aggressiveness involves infringing on the boundaries and rights of others and usually steps on other people’s feelings. It is a highly emotional, intense state of being associated with the fight in our flight or fight response. Setting boundaries assertively, on the other hand, requires we be calm and unemotional in order to communicate clearly and detach from the outcome (something we’ll talk more about a little later).
There is a spectrum of assertiveness. On the one extreme, there is aggressive behavior. On the other is passive behavior. The “sweet spot” of healthy boundaries happens somewhere in between the two. Here’s a handy diagram to help clear things up:
Misconception #3: If I Set Boundaries, People Won’t Like Me
Yes, I know, you’ve probably experienced setting a boundary and losing someone. The pain of that lost relationship lingers with you and seemingly forever solidifies the mantra “I’m never putting my foot down again! Look what it cost me.” The truth is that sometimes being assertive or setting a boundary does filter out unhelpful relationships from our lives. And, regardless of the healthiness of the relationship, it hurts.
The Reality: Likable People Set Boundaries
It’s also true that people like to know where they stand and what to expect. Setting boundaries requires us to be consistently authentic. This predictability makes people feel safe and naturally drawn to you. Respecting your own boundaries also builds the respect others have for you. After all, healthy people are drawn to healthy people. If you desire more healthy, fulfilling relationships in your life, a good place to start is by focusing on your own, healthy boundaries.
Want to Have Healthier Boundaries? Where to Go From Here…
Remember those mysterious tools and skills I mentioned earlier? Now that we’ve begun to clear some of the obstacles in your path to assertive living, let’s give you a toolbox to take on your journey.
Tips for Setting Boundaries
Be Specific and Clear: An effective, helpful boundary ensures you and the receiver are on the same page and creates a built-in safety net for any inevitable, pesky push-back. A good rule of thumb is to use an if/then I statement that includes a consequence. For example, “If you don’t stop talking to me in an angry tone, I will leave the room.” It’s always a good idea to set a consequence that affects the receiver more than yourself if possible and — I can’t stress this enough! — one you can stick to!
Make Boundaries Realistic:Don’t set yourself up for frustration by setting a boundary no normal human being could satisfy with consequences only a heartless robot could enforce. For example, rather than stating “If you ever cancel plans with me again, I won’t speak to you for the rest of my life!,” try “If you stand me up again I will be very upset and tell you how I feel.” Don’t bluff; give yourself permission to be where you are and set a boundary you can own.
Let go of the Outcome:Finally, know that setting boundaries is not an effective way to manipulate or control. Those are actually great examples of poor relationship boundaries! When you set a boundary and know how you will respond if it isn’t respected, you are taking care of yourself. For example, if you tell your partner “If you don’t pay bills on time for the next month, I will take over our financial responsibilities,” be ready to accept it if your partner gets you stuck with another late fee. Letting go of the outcome doesn’t mean not feeling emotions such as disappointment or sadness. Rather, it means knowing you are prepared to manage these emotions and respond in an effective, helpful way that honors your boundaries.
So, go ahead, try out something small. Your path is clearing up nicely. We’ve pulled up the weeds and you have a good starter-kit in your toolbox. You’re on your way to assertive living! You know how to find me if you’d like a companion as you go through your journey.
We all want to have good relationships — our connections with others are central to authentic happiness.
But the dark side of having a vibrant life with lots of people in it is that sometimes we feel imposed upon, hassled, crowded and disappointed by the people we’re trying to have relationships with. And thats where boundaries come in.
As important as it is to be generous, and empathic, and loving towards others, if we aren’t mindful of our own boundaries and healthy limits we can give too much. The truth is that not everyone is a safe person for us to be emotionally close to, and to sacrifice for. But how to you figure out where to draw that line?
Setting and maintaining boundaries is a complex process, with many aspects to it. On today’s episode of the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast, I’m teaching you the first step in creating and maintaining healthy boundaries: Getting to know who you’re dealing with. Only then can you figure out what boundaries are appropriate.
This is a technique I teach my private clients all the time. It will help you figure out what stage of relationship you are in, when you should keep your guard up, and when to feel okay about relaxing your boundaries.
Listen Now, and Learn How to Set Healthy Boundaries
Music Credits: “Home” by Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeros
1) It takes time to get to know people. Trust is earned.
2) Use the “house” metaphor to figure out where you are in a relationship, and what level of access people should have in your life.
3) If you get information that leads you to believe that this person is not safe or trustworthy, put them back at the right “level” of your “relational house.”
4) The biggest mistake you can make is jumping into the pool. Go slow, and let people teach you who they are.