Dreading the Holidays: Setting Boundaries
The previous posts for this series have, in part, led up to today’s post. Before we can set boundaries, we need to be aware of our thoughts and emotions, attempt to understand where the other person is coming from, drop our pride and seek peace. Sometimes, we have taken these steps but they do nothing to curb our frustration, hurt or anxiety about being around really dysfunctional people. This is the place for boundaries. A boundary in this context sets a clear expectation in a crazy-making situation. Let’s say you have a brother who drinks excessively. Your memories of holiday gatherings with him involve everyone enjoying themselves at the beginning but after the alcohol starts flowing, over-indulging Al starts getting loud, obnoxious and is picking fights. Maybe his hands are roaming to places they don’t belong or his language is distasteful and hurtful. What do you do?
This requires a preemptive conversation with Al. Before the holiday event have a conversation with him either in person or over the phone. If in person be sure to have at least one other person with you for safety. Let Al know that you love him and you want to see him at the annual family holiday party. Unfortunately his drinking has contributed to past behavior which has been uncomfortable for you. He is welcome to come as long as he agrees not to drink alcohol. Chances are Al isn’t going to take this well. He may throw it back at you in some way, that it’s your problem not his. That’s OK. You just stay calm and use a gentle tone while maintaining your stance, “You are welcome to come as long as you agree not to drink.”
Generally, we don’t like setting boundaries because we feel mean. In reality, the meanest action is enabling a person’s unhealthy behavior. Yet, in the spirit of trying to keep the environment copacetic, we placate Al and essentially just keep putting drinks in his hand and feeling miserable while we do it. We know the answer, it just feels so harsh. Rehearse to yourself again and again, “The meanest thing I can do to Al is be untruthful and pretend everything is ok.” In addition, “The meanest thing I can do to myself is continually put myself in harm’s way.”
When we stand up to dysfunctional behavior, two positive trajectories can begin. The first is you are developing a backbone: a healthy “no” muscle that speaks what you are OK with and what you are not. The second is you give the other person the opportunity to see how their unhealthy behavior is affecting connection and relationship with others. This realization has the potential to move a person toward healthy change. Al could see that his drinking is hurting others around him. He could recognize his drinking is a problem and if he doesn’t address it he may push his family away. The Als of this world don’t always see this, that is not your concern. Your work is to set a clear healthy boundary. What Al chooses to do with it is up to him.
Previous posts intros series: Dreading the Holidays, Dreading the Holidays: Understanding and Compassion, Dreading the Holidays: Dysfunction with a Dose of Curiosity, and Dreading the Holidays: The Power of Peace