We’ve all heard the oxygen mask analogy: Putting your own mask on first on an airplane enables you to take care of others after meeting your own needs. Boundaries are guidelines to help us do just that: ensure our own needs are taken care of before we make space to help others.
Families and boundaries do not always go hand in hand. Very often families are built on systems and rules that go against individual boundaries. To make things even more complicated, sometimes those who benefit from us not having firm boundaries have a difficult time adjusting to them being set.
That doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong; it just may take some time to create a new normal! Sometimes when boundaries are too rigid, it can begin to feel like we have built walls between us and the people we love. Instead, I like to envision setting boundaries as more of a garage door with you holding the remote door opener. You get to decide when and where the door opens up, who comes inside, and how long it stays open.
Boundary setting does not need to be harsh. It can and should be communicated tactfully and with kindness. Having these in place should actually allow us to feel more comfortable being close and connected with our loved ones.
In the holiday environment especially, tension and expectations with family tends to run high.
Here are a few things to consider in setting boundaries:
Decide ahead of time how long you are willing to stay at an event and let your family know when you plan to head out.
Remember, it’s okay to leave when you want, and you can plan to start saying your goodbyes about half an hour prior to when you’d like to be on the road.
Decide ahead of time if you’re comfortable staying with family or friends and what this means for you in terms of emotional energy. When making this choice, consider the financial cost of staying at a hotel/Airbnb but also the emotional and energy cost of staying with family. This may be especially important for introverts or families that tend to have a limit of how much family time feels okay.
It’s also okay to say "no" altogether to family events.
Consider the costs and benefits of going and give yourself permission to make a choice based on what you need. If you have a family that tends to take up a lot of your emotional energy, you can decide you don’t have enough to give. If you do decide to go, you can make an intentional choice to do some self-care to “fill up your cup” before and after the family event.
Time & Space Boundaries
Take breaks! Take a long shower, phone a friend, offer to take the dog on a walk, or go for a drive. Even just 15-20 minutes away from a stimulating or triggering environment can be helpful in recharging and regulating.
You can say something like, “I’m going to take a quick walk to make a phone call; I’ll be back in 20 minutes.” Remember you don’t need to over-explain yourself when you need to take a break!
All in all, it’s helpful to remember that it’s always easier to loosen boundaries than it is to tighten them. This means it can be helpful to start out on the firm side and loosen as we go. Boundaries are meant to ultimately be permeable, and you’re allowed to shift them as needed. It can be hard to find your footing at first. Go with what feels comfortable to you in each relationship and situation, and give yourself the grace to make changes as needed!
If you find yourself struggling to set boundaries or feeling triggered by the boundaries of others, it might be helpful to explore this with your therapist.