How to Have Boundaries With Family Over The Holidays

Holiday movies are so nice and easy, aren’t they? Each one of them has a lovable hero, a contemptible villain, and thirty or so joyful people who seem to have no other meaning in life than to wear ugly sweaters and remind people of the meaning of Christmas. It’s so simple on the screen.


In our real lives, our families are so much more complicated The Christmas sweaters are just as ugly as on the big screen, but the feelings and relationships are complex and entrenched. One of the issues that bring out real terror in people is anticipating dealing with their family members around the holidays. It feels like an unavoidable situation that’s an inevitable cycle. All of those feelings and history combined, people get lost in the hurt and resentment that's a result, but at a gathering, they feel helpless to leave.


With the confusion of those experiences in mind, I’ve come up with three simple rules on how to have boundaries with your family in your holiday gathering:


1. Don’t Attack. Often times, there’s ample reason to be angry or resentful of others. Perhaps you have a family member who said something inappropriate. Maybe you saw a family member greet someone rudely, or insult someone’s appearance. In those situations, it can be tempting to act like a hero and interject in a big, aggressive way. The pitfall of that approach is that people virtually always resort to defending their position harder, rather than making a change. If the potential for that person making a change is more valuable to you than shaming them in front of others, then I recommend talking to the person privately and discussing the way their behavior upsets you, while making a clear request for the behavior you’d like to see instead. “Cousin Tim, it hurts my feelings when you make fun of me for XYZ. In the future, I’d really like you to keep any criticisms you have to yourself, especially when we are at a family gathering.” Setting limits can help establish respect between you and the family member as well as prevent your anger from escalating.


2. Don’t Always Feel The Need to Defend. Someone may take issue with something about you; they may have a point and they may not. Regardless, you don’t need to be in the position of defending yourself to anyone. People sometimes tell me that they’ll experience criticism the moment they walk in the door at a family gathering or that they anticipate a family member who is waiting to start a conflict with them. By refusing to defend yourself, you refuse to give them the opportunity to dispute your worthiness. “I don’t see it that way, but it’s OK. We don’t have to agree on everything and we’re probably not going to sort it out tonight, anyway.” They may continue to try to argue with you, but you don’t need to be submerged in that dispute. You can let them shadowbox all night while you enjoy yourself.


3. Maintain The Boundaries That You Need. An unfortunate habit that some people develop is lying about themselves in order to protect themselves from their family. Sometimes this takes the form of telling outright falsehoods about yourself, and sometimes it takes the form of lying by omission or misleading. There are times that this serves us well. For example, if your family will be aggressive with you if you divulge your sexual orientation, then, by all means, tell that lie and stay safe. Make sure that you are being honest with yourself and your needs. By lying about your needs to appease family, it can take on a really unhealthy turn when it results in you not being your authentic self with your family. Instead, people build the person they want their family member to experience and send that person for the holiday.


It is actually generous to be your true self with those that you love and more emotionally nourishing as well. “I’m really tired. I know everyone wants to continue to talk, but I need to go home and get some sleep.” “I really don’t feel like drinking.” “I definitely would like another slice of pie.” “I don’t like it when you tell that story about me. It’s not a positive memory for me.” Boundaries can be difficult to build and maintain, but when they are in place it opens the door for so much more enjoyment and freedom during family gatherings, as well as the opportunity both to be your true, authentic self and for other people to get to know and love the real you. And no matter what any holiday movie says, that’s the real celebration.


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