When boundaries are done right, they feel like a gift.
When done poorly, they feel like a punishment.
There is a lot of confusion about what it means to have boundaries and how exactly to “do” them.
This holiday season, let’s do boundaries well. So well, no one even knows you are “doing” them.
In that spirit, my gift to you is a simple, three-step action plan to happy, healthy boundaries for the holiday season.
1. Accept people as they are.
A common myth about boundaries is that they are communicated by telling other people what you want them to do for you. For example, it’s saying “I want you to get me only handmade gifts.”
This isn’t a boundary, it’s putting your values on another person. This is detrimental to relationships. And you look like a jerk.
People will give gifts they want to give. You get to decide what to do with them.
Accepting people as they are means you know and expect them to do the things they have done in the past.
Boundaries are about you getting clear how you will respond, react, and otherwise work with this known and expected behavior.
Perhaps you are a minimalist and your parents are Dollar-Store-aholics. If asked what you want for Christmas, you can express your desire for fewer, higher quality items, but you might get a pile of plastic.
Good boundaries mean being prepared for that outcome.
Healthy boundaries might mean that you’ve already arranged a place to donate said plastic items. Don’t rub that in their faces, just do what you have the right to do; anything you want with the gifts.
You might encourage a new tradition, like choosing a name and only giving gifts to one person. Or a Yankee swap. You could, ahead of the holidays, see if you can get agreement on donations to a scholarship fund or a charity in lieu of gifts. Those are other ways you can work towards your ideal without insulting others.
But you still might get 30 items that have no use in your life. Be gracious. In private, consider your own end-of-year donation to a environmental organization to offset the damage.
And find a teacher who needs some goodies for their prize closet.
2. Engage their best selves.
Boundaries are best when they set people up to shine and when you avoid setting them up to fail.
Don’t ever invite your always-late friend to a performance where it will be super embarrassing to sneak in late.
Don’t suggest celebrating a holiday in the evening if you know your father-in-law is stupid drunk and inappropriate every day by 5pm.
Don’t host a formal sit-down dinner and invite anyone under the age of 13.
You’ve got to accept people as they are and then work to engage their best selves. Given who they are, how do you want to celebrate the holidays with the people in your life?
A helpful exercise is to consider the people in your lives and consider:
When do you enjoy them the most?
What are the activities that you enjoy doing together?
When do they shine?
Where are your best memories made?
Where do things go awry?
Hone in on the activity, time-frame, location, and parameters that set up your friends and family to be their best—and for you to really enjoy them.
Helping cultivate a positive experience by planning an event that really works for everyone is a wonderful, kind boundary. Good boundaries are often unannounced but well thought-out.
That brings me to my last step.
3. Take initiative.
Often when we’ve had difficult experiences, especially with family around the holidays, we tend to be filled with dread and avoid talking about the next holiday.
Good boundaries happen when we do the opposite. After a negative experience, it’s time for you to step up and be proactive in encouraging a better situation for the next holiday.
Even if you don’t think you did anything wrong, or it’s not “your problem.”
Having healthy boundaries mean being the adult in the situation. If you want a better experience, you need to take action.
Now, certainly there are times when we decide we no longer want to engage at all with certain people. That’s a difficult decision, and often one that requires a lot of thought and support.
But for the general sense of feeling unfulfilled or not very engaged or connected with family, you might consider better boundaries that you thoughtfully initiate.
The good news is that you do not have to rehash the past, complain, or tell people what to do. You can simply be involved in a planning process that considers how people will enjoy each other the most.
You might say that you think it would be great to have a low stress situation, such as meeting at a neutral place (e.g. restaurant) for a meal together. Or you can suggest an activity that helps give the time together structure. Maybe you have an outdoorsy family and doing something outside is the best way to bond.
Lead with your intention: everyone having a good time with each other. Acknowledge this may be a departure from the past, but assure your family that traditions are meant to morph to suit your families current needs.
If your family wants to continue to do things in the way they have always done—and don’t always work for you—your job is to then choose which part you want to participate in.
You can’t change what they do, but you can choose how you engage.
Make choices based on how to get the best out of your loved ones. Maybe you limit the time so you don’t get burned out and say something snarky. Maybe you visit for part of the celebration when a negative dynamic is less likely to occur.
If none of that is workable, maybe you volunteer, go elsewhere, or work on the holiday and find another time and place to engage your family before or after the holiday.
Happy holidays to you and yours. May your good boundaries help spread love and cheer.