How to Set Boundaries – and Stay Sane - this Christmas
Expectations are running high this festive season, following a year filled with lockdowns, family separations and uncertainty. However, while it’s a time for celebration, it can also create anxiety for many of us.
Our 'surge capacity' has been depleted by the stresses we’ve experienced during the year. ‘Surge capacity’ is a term used for the mental and physical adaptive systems that humans draw on for their short-term survival in acutely stressful situations, such as natural disasters.
However, while natural disasters occur over a short period, the pandemic has stretched out for almost two years. It means that while the pressure to be merry is high, the fuel in our tanks to be jolly is low.
Setting boundaries during the festive season can help ensure it’s a time of joy, rather than sadness.
Here’s our guide to establishing boundaries that will protect your mental health and your relationships over the coming weeks.
What are Boundaries?
To borrow Brene Brown’s definition, boundaries are simply knowing what is okay and what is not okay for you. Behaviourally, setting a boundary is being able to ask for what you need and want or being able to say no effectively and convincingly.
“As our calendars swell with obligations, it's important to recommit to one thing that can help keep us sane: boundaries,” Brene notes.
“Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others.”
The Remarkable Woman CEO Shivani Gopal agrees: “It’s all about respecting yourself and viewing your precious time as important. After all, just like everyone else, you have limited time to enjoy yourself and create fun in your life. You don’t want to spend every hour of the day in service of other people - that’s a recipe for stress, burnout and resentfulness.”
Being clear with yourself and others about what to expect and what you are—and aren’t—comfortable with reduces anxiety for everyone.
Boundaries that relate to Christmas include not overcommitting to attending events and gatherings, setting reasonable limits on gift purchases and ensuring the workload when preparing for celebrations is evenly distributed.
For more tips on creating a hierarchy of values to guide you in setting boundaries with purpose and without feeling guilty about it, click here.
Setting Values-Based Boundaries
Values-based boundaries align to the personal values and morals that define you and help guide you through life. These might relate to health, wellbeing, love and relationships.
Christmas can be a testing time for these boundaries. We tend to compare our festive experience with a happy and united family we see on TV ads. Many of us try to replicate an image that isn't realistic and become despondent as a result.
We want to make sure those around us are happy, but over-planning or overspending risks bringing exhaustion rather than joy. Feeling pressured to please everyone can be damaging to both our mental health and our physical well being.
Learning to say no and expressing your needs to friends and family doesn’t mean you are letting them down, it’s actually a great example of establishing healthy boundaries and protecting your relationships by not allowing resentment to grow.
Setting Financial Boundaries
Boundaries aren’t restricted to emotional and mental guidelines, they extend to your finances too. You’ll feel far more empowered at Christmas if you set yourself a budget and stick to it.
If money is tight, for example, you shouldn’t feel obliged to spend big on gifts. As the saying goes “it’s the thought that counts”.
Perhaps suggest to friends and family that you organise a Secret Santa. That means you won’t have to buy gifts for everyone, just draw one person’s name and focus on giving that person a special gift they’ll really love.
When it comes to the cost of catering, remember that hosting a festive event doesn’t mean you need to carry the financial burden and workload all by yourself. It’s OK to ask others to bring nibbles, drinks, salads or desserts.
For more suggestions on Christmas budgeting, click here.
Give Yourself a Break
It’s okay to take a break when your boundaries are challenged by the pressures of Christmas socialising, whether it be with friends, family or work colleagues.
We often tell ourselves we need to be constantly present at events and gatherings, whether we are hosting guests or a visitor in someone else’s home.
There’s nothing wrong with taking some time to be alone, rest and recharge.
It’s also fine to absent yourself from the controversial conversations or difficult dynamics that invariably crop up at Christmas. A healthy way to diffuse situations that are at odds with your values is to politely suggest moving to a less controversial subject, then steering the conversation in a different direction.
When dealing with dysfunctional families and relatives who make negative remarks about your appearance, relationship status or career choices, remember that it’s OK be you and live your life the way you choose. Ignoring jibes or quietly walking away, rather than letting their opinions affect your own choices or mental health, can often be a better approach. Otherwise, try calmly letting the other person know their behaviour is unacceptable.
It can also be helpful to set a time limit for your attendance at potentially overwhelming events to give yourself a point of exit.
Sticking to Your Boundaries
Brene Brown suggests making a mantra for times when you are asked to do something that crosses your boundaries. She bought a silver ring that she spins as she silently repeats to herself to "choose discomfort over resentment".
“My mantra reminds me that I'm making a choice that's critical for my well-being—even if it's not easy,” she notes.
She also suggests rehearsing what to say to people when you feel pressured to please.
“I'll often say, to no one in particular, ‘I can't take that on’ or ‘My plate is full’. Like many worthwhile endeavours, boundary setting is a practice,” she adds.
Shivani notes that saying ‘no’ to others doesn’t always come naturally to women.
“We’re wired to be accommodating and keep the peace,” she says. “We feel selfish for turning others down. The truth is, by saying yes to others when we don’t want to, we’re only disappointing ourselves.
“You can’t make others happy when you’re not genuinely happy yourself. The entire process ends up being a sad, unfulfilling, disappointing cycle for all.”
For more tips on learning to say no without feeling guilty, click here.
Setting boundaries is the best gift you can give yourself this Christmas. It’s the key to feeling joyful, peaceful and empowered during the festive season.
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