Hope for the Holidays: How boundaries can bring tidings of good mental cheer

Hope for the Holidays: How boundaries can bring tidings of good mental cheer

The holiday season is upon us and that means our social calendars are filling up. We are planning holiday gatherings with family, coworkers, and friends to celebrate life and the end of another trying year. Unfortunately, this time of year is not always something to look forward to for many people. Many people have anxiety about these gatherings and some of the interactions that will take place. Boundaries are important for helping us walk into these gatherings with self-confidence and good cheer.

What are boundaries?

Just like property boundaries, personal boundaries create definition. They let us know who we are and who we are not, what is our role and what is someone else’s. They also define responsibility. This could be the most common use of personal boundaries, to determine what belongs to us and what belongs to someone else. We put boundaries around things worth protecting; these things could be physical, time, emotional, spiritual, or even monetary. We cannot think of boundaries as overly firm and rigid or overly diffuse and transparent. Boundaries are like fences, they keep the bad out and the good in. Gates in fences allow bad to flow out and good to flow in. Boundaries give us a sense of autonomy and define how we interact with others and the world around us. They protect our sense of well-being and contribute to positive self-esteem, emotional stability, and healthy relationships.

Boundaries could look like the monetary amount that you and your partner agree to spend on each other for holiday gifts or the amount you agree to spend on the children, friends, or family. It could be the amount of time you need off at the holidays to truly rest and revive going into a new year. Boundaries could also be reflected in the amount of time you’re willing to stay at a party or gathering due to other events or obligations on your time.

When we are talking relationally, boundaries are an established set of limits over your physical and emotional well-being which you expect others to respect in their relationship to you. Boundaries can look like emotional and/or physical space between you and another person. You may need this in order to allow yourself to be authentically you, without pressure to be something that you are not. Boundaries could be a limit or line over which you will not allow anyone to cross because of negative past experiences. Boundaries can be clearly defined limits on the actions of others that you are willing to accept. These limits may be needed in order to maintain the freedom to think, feel or act the way you need.

Some boundaries are set and honored on ourselves by placing limits on ourselves or saying no to others. They may entail boundaries in what we eat or drink for health reasons. They may involve what we spend for budgetary reasons.

Common approaches to boundaries

There are four main approaches to boundaries: Compliance, Control, Avoidance, Nonresponse. No one really designs and holds boundaries perfectly. It is important to discover our own tendencies so that we can learn to live well-boundaried lives for our benefit and the benefit of others.

Compliant people always find themselves carrying the daily loads of others because they can't say ‘no’. Compliant people melt into the demands and needs of others and are unable to stand distinct from people who want something from them. They avoid confrontations for fear that others may not think well of them. Because they can’t say ‘no’, they often say ‘yes’ to the bad by failing to set limits. The result is feeling guilty or controlled by others.

Avoidant people say ‘no’ to the good and fail to open their gate for the love and care of others. Their boundaries are like walls, originally intended as protection, but now so strong they let nothing in at all, good or bad. No one can reach an avoidant person, no one can touch them emotionally. They are unable to accept the love and care that others want to give. When they are in need they withdraw so as not to let others see their needs, even though they deeply desire someone to step in and rescue them. People can be both compliant and avoidant at the same time, creating reverse boundaries. This means they have boundaries where they shouldn’t and lack boundaries where they need them. They cannot say no to others, and also are unable to ask for or receive the support they so often need.

Controlling people fail to respect the ‘no’ of others, violating boundaries either aggressively or by manipulation. For controlling people, our ‘no’ is simply a challenge to change our mind, and this can wreak havoc in a relationship. Controlling people have problems hearing and respecting other people’s boundaries, therefore often being viewed as bullies, manipulative, and aggressive. The main problem is that controlling people resist taking responsibility for their own lives and try to give it to others instead. Aggressive controllers run over others’ boundaries like a tank, and many times they are not even aware that others have boundaries. Manipulative controllers are less honest than the aggressive ones. They recognize the boundaries of others, but try to persuade or seduce others into carrying their burdens. They also manipulate circumstances to get their way, often using guilt. Controlling people are generally undisciplined, having little ability to curb their own impulses. They are limited in their ability to take responsibility for their own lives and expect others to do that for them. This is why they hate the word ‘no’ from others.

Nonresponsive people fail to give love to others: they don't hear the needs of others and neglect their responsibility to give care and help. Nonresponsive people seem indifferent about the needs of people around them. They often appear strong to the outside world because they are not easily distracted and usually accomplish what they have in mind. But in relationships, this lack of sensitivity makes unresponsive people appear cold. Nonresponsive people rightfully point out that they are not responsible for the life of others but fail to see that they do have a responsibility to connect to people around them and help carry others’ burdens.

How do I know if my boundaries have been breached?

First, we must be clear that any abuse that causes physical, emotional, psychological, spiritual, or financial harm is a major violation of boundaries and should not be allowed to continue. These situations call for additional assistance from a professional for help with tangible boundaries to protect oneself. Seek a trusted friend, counselor, spiritual leader, or public official to assist.

For boundary breaches that don’t fall into the above category, it can be difficult to discern what is “too far” for us. Feelings can be good indicators that something is not right in a relationship or situation. Feelings can alert us to the need for evaluation with discernment. We may feel a lack of privacy or feel overwhelmed. We may feel a lack of freedom or feel violated or used. If our boundaries have been subtly breached over time, we will tend to feel resentful, bitter, or even angry. Another indicator could be isolation or turning inside so that people cannot see how you are really feeling or what you are thinking.

If your boundaries have been consistently breached over time, you may notice excessive detachment in yourself or even dissociation. Dissociation is blanking out during a stressful emotional event and being out of touch with your feelings. You may notice yourself being excessively cold and aloof, and this could be indicators of unresolved resentment over past violations. You may feel smothered or overwhelmed, like you're being strangled, tightly held, like you cannot breathe. You may also notice a lack of privacy, being expected to report to others all the details and content of your dealings with the outside world.

In addition to our own feelings as indicators of boundary breaches, we also know some common behaviors (of others OR ourselves) that violate personal autonomy. Some of these include:

  • Entitlement- a person tells you that you owe them or they are entitled to what they are demanding of you
  • Unrealistic Expectations- when you are asked to fulfill a role that is not yours or outside your ability
  • Baiting/Game Playing/Entrapment
  • Manipulation/Begging
  • Exploitation
  • Mocking/Contempt/Name-calling
  • Enmeshment- requiring that everyone in a group to everything together or think, feel, act in the same way where autonomy is discouraged
  • Untreated addiction
  • Using scripture or religious principles against you to try to modify your behavior or get what they want

Creating Healthy Boundaries

Listen to your feelings, evaluate them, try to find the root. You may just find a breach of boundaries. Once you’ve recognized a lack of or breach of boundary, it’s time to create a new boundary. A guiding principle in boundary creating is remembering that we are responsible FOR ourselves and TO others. In other words, we are responsible FOR our thoughts, feelings, words, behaviors, health. We are responsible TO others in the way we speak to them, listen to them, are considerate to them. (See books in the Boundaries series by Dr. Henry Cloud and John Townsend  or drcloud.com)

Consider the limits or guardrails that will help you maintain autonomy, self-respect, peace in a situation or relationship. This could be a limit on time, discussion topics, money spent, etc. You must be clear about the boundary to yourself and others, making sure you have been thoughtful about the boundary issue. Define what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior for yourself or someone else. For example, if your mother always comments on your weight when she visits on holidays, let her know that it is not acceptable to you for her to comment on your body and ask that she find some other things to highlight. You may even just want to address the criticism in general and communicate that it is not welcomed.

It is possible to speak your truth and boundary in love. Remember, you are defining what is right and acceptable for you, not for someone else. When you set a boundary with someone, it is likely that they won’t accept it right away. We must expect push-back when we set boundaries. But that is okay because boundaries are for YOU and not someone else.

Once a boundary is crossed or violated, remind the individual of your boundary and ask for their help in maintaining it. If they continue to violate your boundary, ask firmly and kindly for the behavior to stop. If it continues, consider what further action is appropriate to stop the behavior. You can be respectful and firm. You may need to identify a way to position yourself in a time and place that minimizes the opportunity for the boundary to be crossed. In addition, thank those who honor your boundaries and honor the boundaries of others. It is also important to evaluate yourself and whether or not you respect the boundaries of others. If you discovered that you are overly compliant or controlling, you may need to reconsider your own behaviors with others. If you find yourself overly avoidant or nonresponsive, you may need to practice reaching to others in times of need.

Relationships are difficult and often take a lot of work. Our different temperaments, personalities, and personal histories impact the way we interact with other people. Boundaries can help us have more mutually beneficial relationships with our family and friends. As we head into the holiday season, consider your relationships and the boundaries or lack of boundaries in place as you plan to spend time together. The people around us are our most valuable resource. We can create better environments through boundaries and mutual respect.

Rebecca Maxwell is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Jacksonville, Florida. She can be reached at jacksonvillecounseling.net.