Holidays, Boundaries, and the Nuanced In-between
Written by Jessica A. Jaramillo, MS, LPC. Interim Crisis Coordinator and Clinical Supervisor at the Counseling CenterDec 12, 2022
With the holiday break right around the corner, many of us are set to spend time with family and friends, and with this comes a sea of well-meaning messages on how to correctly, and healthily, interact with our loved ones. And so, here’s one more that says, don’t worry about doing right or doing it at all. Sometimes our mental health is best protected by not ascribing to popular advice. What does this mean?
This time of year is generally associated with joy, gratitude, laughter, and loving interactions; it is also true that it can be fraught with tension and difficulties, and can be a source of discomfort, anxiety, or flat out dread (depending on the nature of our relationships). Oftentimes, it’s a bit of both.
Human relationships, of any kind, are marked by the complexities of their duality. One can love someone while feeling resentful, be hurt and grateful at the same time, feel disappointed and hopeful, be angry and distant and still deeply yearn for someone, or have the desire to spend time with our people while also acknowledging that those same relationships can create pain. The nuance of our interactions stays true during the holidays season as well, when all the excitement about seeing our loved ones is also coupled with concerns about the disagreements or conflicts that may arise.
Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) tells us that with every interaction we are balancing several priorities simultaneously and will sometimes need to select one over the other. These priorities are:
- preserving the relationship
- achieving our goal in that moment, and
- keeping our self-respect
Despite this, the common suggestions for positive interactions will—more often than not—enforce the implementation of firm boundaries, which can help us achieve our goal in that moment but potentially, at the expense of the relationship. Furthermore, this black and white solution does not account for the relevancy of cultural dynamics and/or power differentials at play. The premise goes something like this: a boundary violation occurs, the person at hand calmly, and assertively, states their thoughts and feelings and establishes a limit (boundary setting), and ideally, the receiving individual understands and reacts accordingly. If the other person fails to respect the boundary, then there is subsequent pressure to uphold it by distancing oneself or severing the relationship for our own individual wellbeing. Straightforward and simple... only when it’s not.
This is not a criticism on boundaries. They are a necessary and indispensable skill to be learned for the success of interpersonal relationships. This is an acknowledgement on the intricacy of interpersonal dynamics. Permission to not do it perfectly—or at all—if that is a better option than the pressure to do it right. And more importantly, awareness on how much the idea of successful boundaries exist through a western lens, where values of individuality thrive. Yet for minorities with different cultural aspects at play, group values may not allow for those clear-cut limits that we’re encouraged to practice in popular psychology. Boundaries, in essence, stem from the differentiation of self, a concept that directly conflicts with the some of the core principles of collectivistic cultures. The ability to set boundaries also exists in a realm of privilege; sometimes it’s not the lack of desire for differentiation, but the risk that it poses to our physical safety, financial wellbeing, or community belongingness.
Therefore, in this article, we’ll present the alternative and hold the other side. How do I interact with loved ones this holiday season when boundaries may not be an option (whether for cultural differences or otherwise)?
- Normalize and validate your own emotions, recognize that more than one can exist simultaneously. For example, you can be happy that you get to see and share with your family and be stressed out by some of their behaviors. You can be willing and eager to help host dinner and be overwhelmed by the responsibility (this different than placing a boundary and saying no to hosting, which may go against the desire of community sharing/giving).
- Dispel the common narrative that relationships—regardless of the type—exist in a black or white patterns. If anything, relationships are a grey scale that can hold ambiguity at its core. This is to say, things can be both good and bad. And, depending on the extent, the context, the frequency, and the nature of the relationship we can make informed choices on how to proceed, for both the short term and the long term.
- Make boundaries flexible, flexibility is key. Feeling like a boundary needs to be rigid to be a boundary will only aid in increasing the distress around it, especially if it’s not well receiving or upheld by others. Make compromises and allow them to fluctuate and change depending on the circumstances.
- Shake the guilt, especially in multicultural spaces. Being multicultural comes with certain acculturation stressors, pressure to adapt to the expectations and values of the dominant culture, and pressure to uphold our own family values. Remember that there isn’t a right answer, regardless of what anyone says, what feels helpful to others may not be so to you.
- On that same note, remind yourself about the subjectiveness of boundaries and the variables that go into it. It is not a cookie-cutter fit for all. And certain expectations for boundaries may go against things that we genuinely care about. We may be burdened by our families’ expectations, and it also does not mean we wish to cut ties entirely
- Reflect on some of these questions:
- How do the issues of power dynamics come into play for me?
- Are my boundaries rigid or flexible?
- What is the purpose of this boundary? What am I hoping to achieve?
- What do boundaries mean to me?
- How does privilege inform boundary setting and boundary honoring?
7. Expect triggers, it’s inevitable. This is universal in any long-term relationship, there will always be a set of things that can create friction. If the emotional reactivity feels high have some coping skills at hand, for example:
- Gentle avoidance, disengage mentally or physically. Take your thoughts elsewhere, take a bathroom break, talk to someone else, do a mentally engaging activity, get some fresh air.
- Self-soothe. Use your 5 senses to regulate your emotions, identify activities that feel good and relaxing and can be practiced anywhere (such as a breathing exercise).
- Self-validate. Recognize, and name the emotions coming up, acknowledge them as valid given your perspective and the circumstances, normalize the experience.
- Do the opposite of your emotion if the emotion seems counterproductive to the situation or may escalate conflict. For example, if you’re angry and feel like lashing out but that may cause a fight, change the topic to something light or fun.
- Have a safe person. A friend or family member you can reach out to, talk about something random with them or just have them listen to you, whatever feels best.
- Seek an activity that creates a different emotion. Watch a funny show, look at pictures of someone you like, dance to your favorite song, play an exciting game.
- Do not engage. Sometimes anger compels us to argue for what we feel is right, this is a normal reaction to the emotion although it may not always be the most productive alternative. Knowing when and how to disengage may create the emotional protection we need at that time.
- Agree for the sake of ending the conversation, this may feel counterintuitive but sometimes to safeguard our emotional wellbeing we need to pick our battles. Weigh the pros and cons in that moment and if it safer to go with the flow, its ok to do so.
Finally, take care of yourself in ways that make sense to you! Do something you love, find ways to relax and laugh. Disconnect and retrieve when necessary, and if all else fails don’t hesitate to reach out to our counseling center at CU Denver, we’re always here to support you.
See you next year!