In the best of times, complicated family dynamics can make the holidays more challenging. Add in a pandemic that has prevailed for more than 20 months and a period of vast political division, and the likelihood of a difficult holiday season becomes far greater.
However, all is not lost. According to Shelby Espiritu, LMFT, a therapist with Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital, setting boundaries with loved ones can make a world of difference.
“Boundaries are so important for our own protection and happiness,” Espiritu says. “Protection includes not only physical safety, but also our emotional and mental safety.”
She adds that setting boundaries is for you, not the other person. It is a way for you to reinforce that you matter. Even if the other person is choosing not to do what you request, you are still able to voice your requests and reinforce that your needs are valid.
Questions to ask before setting boundaries
According to Espiritu, there are a variety of boundaries to consider this holiday season with the political unrest our country is facing and the COVID-19 pandemic. A question that can help you determine what boundaries you may need to set to feel protected is, “What am I comfortable with and what am I not comfortable with?”
After clarifying your own needs, Espiritu recommends you approach a conversation about boundaries with loved ones by asking them questions about their hopes and plans for the holiday. You want to be curious, rather than accusatory. Once you have the facts, you can share what you need in order to feel safe.
You might prefer to gather outdoors rather than indoors, or request that all people in attendance have received a COVID-19 vaccine, if eligible. Traveling far may not feel wise this holiday season, but promises of future visits could be made. Perhaps you’d like to suggest a few ground rules about appropriate topics to discuss. While a family conversation about religion is OK, talking about politics may not be the best idea.
“Everyone is handling this pandemic differently and making decisions based on what is best for them,” Espiritu says. “It is helpful to tell others what you want or need from them, rather than what you don’t want. Explain your needs and take responsibility for your decisions without calling into question the decisions they are making for themselves.”
Preparation can lead to protection and connection
Espiritu stresses that preparation before gatherings can also help. It is important to decide in advance how you’ll act if someone crosses one of your boundaries, such as insisting everyone removes their face masks indoors when not all guests are vaccinated or bringing up something you don’t want to talk about. If a conversation goes astray, she suggests you can let the other person know you are not comfortable talking about certain topics, suggest something else you can talk about, or redirect the conversation by asking them questions about themselves.
“If there is a person you often get into heated conflict with on a certain topic, it could be helpful to approach them with this goal in mind: feeling proud of how you interact and communicate with them, regardless of how they respond or what they do,” Espiritu says. “I always like to come back to the question, ‘How will my actions right now impact how I feel about myself later?’”
When setting boundaries isn’t enough
Unfortunately, not everyone will follow through on preset boundaries. If you are setting a boundary and your loved ones are not as accepting as you hoped, Espiritu says it is important to validate yourself and remind yourself why you have set it, which can be very helpful in avoiding self-blame.
“Self-care is really important during this season,” she says. “Find ways to treat yourself. They don’t have to be big or expensive — indulge in a simple beverage you enjoy, light a pleasantly scented candle or maybe buy yourself some flowers.”
If you find you need to set more boundaries or create distance with certain people in your life, Espiritu offers the following tips:
- Take inventory on how the relationship is affecting you emotionally and physically.
- Consider how you can resolve any conflict — are you and the other person able to compromise, consider each other’s point of view, actively listen, take turns talking and have mutual respect?
- Be careful not to just “ghost” someone or cut them off without sharing why you are setting boundaries and giving them the chance to change.
- Use “I” statements to share what you need; this allows you to take responsibility for yourself, rather than blaming your need for a boundary on their behaviors.
- Picture a target with you at the center, and each ring extending outward is a different boundary that you need to set. It is possible to keep difficult people in your life while keeping them further from your center.
“In setting boundaries, you empower yourself,” Espiritu says. “You send the message to yourself that you have value and your needs matter, which is especially important right now during the holiday season and with the pandemic continuing to affect our everyday lives.”
Sharp HealthCare encourages all people age 5 and older to receive a COVID-19 vaccine for safe and happy holidays. Get COVID-19 vaccine information and access to COVID-19 resources.
For the news media: To speak with Shelby Espiritu, LMFT, about setting boundaries during the holidays, contact Erica Carlson, senior public relations specialist, at firstname.lastname@example.org.