Ah, the holidays. Full of gift giving and special meals and favorite films and twinkle lights — sometimes with a side of awkward encounters with friends and family. When those dear to us comment on our bodies and food choices, are a little too touchy-feely for our liking, or insist on talking about hot-button topics while we’re just trying to enjoy some eggnog, it can turn the happiest time of the year into one of the most stressful times of the year.
If you find yourself dreading holiday socializing for exactly these reasons, you might benefit from assessing the health of your personal boundaries. When you set and enforce personal boundaries, you determine the amount of physical and emotional space you allow between yourself and other people. Your boundaries help you clearly identify what types of communication and behavior are acceptable to you — and how you will respond if someone says or does something outside those limits.
This includes not being the target of — or witness to — negative food and body talk and having the right to eat foods you enjoy and, conversely, to not be pressured to eat food you don’t want.
“Dieting and weight are unfortunately common conversation topics during the holidays,” said registered dietitian Kelly Martin, MS, RDN, CD, founder of Attune Nutrition in Seattle. “Many of us have experienced weight changes during the pandemic and it can be a source of stress when we are gathering with people we haven’t seen in person for a while.” When meeting with family and friends, she suggests we stay away from comments about people’s bodies or how their appearance has changed. “Instead try reframing your focus on connection and letting people know how glad you are to see them during this time.”
Brandy Gillihan, LMHC, a licensed mental health counselor in Olympia, said she often starts with a base script that her clients can modify as needed, such as, “I’m working on creating a different relationship with (my body, food), so I ask that you don’t comment on it. Thanks.” The script can be adjusted to address other types of boundaries. For example, if you need to set boundaries with extended family members who want to hug your child, and your child isn’t keen on that, you could say, “We’re working on helping (child’s name) create a different relationship with boundaries, so I ask that you respect her wish not to be hugged. Thanks.”
Seattle therapist Emily Cooper, LICSW, of Intuitive Therapy Group often posts about boundaries on Instagram (@HeyEmilyCooper). She said our boundaries are valid whether or not they are validated by others, and that boundaries are a two-way street — sometimes we may be the person people need a boundary with to feel safe. She also points out that feeling safe is better than being ‘nice,’ and that this applies to everyone, even to children who feel unsafe hugging someone adults may perceive as very safe. “Congratulate them on prioritizing their safety over grandma/grandpa’s comfort!” she said.
If setting boundaries — and verbalizing them — is challenging for you, reflect on why that is. “I often find that the tension between setting boundaries and not ‘making waves’ isn’t as much about not wanting to make others uncomfortable as it is about how difficult it is to sit within our own discomfort with interpersonal conflict,” Gillihan said, adding that holiday gatherings might not be an ideal time or place to practice being OK with this sort of discomfort, and that her simple script can be a way of establishing boundaries without having to educate others. “It also communicates that this is about our own boundaries and needs, which are by nature subjective and not up for debate.”
If you’re fed up with diet and weight talk, Martin said it makes sense that you might want to educate others on why comments about people’s bodies are harmful — but first consider your audience. “Not everyone will be open to hearing new information and they might be deeply rooted in diet culture,” she said. “Ask yourself two questions: Is this person reachable and teachable to a new perspective right now? Do I have the emotional bandwidth to have this conversation? If not, you may need to step away or change the subject.”
When you need to set a boundary, do it clearly, calmly, firmly and respectfully — don’t justify, get angry or apologize. (You can’t successfully establish a clear boundary if you send mixed messages by apologizing.) Also be clear about the consequences if your boundary is ignored. For example, you might call the person out on their behaviors, walk away from the conversation, no longer spend time with the person — or leave the relationship altogether.
However, if you’re not ready to end a conversation or downgrade a friendship, don’t say that you are. It is not enough to set a boundary — you have to be willing to enforce it, which means following through with consequences. Otherwise, you’re just crying wolf. It’s also important to understand that you are not responsible for the other person’s reaction to the boundary you are setting. If you think someone might get upset or try to test you, it can be helpful to plan for that response — but also remain firm.
While setting boundaries is important for self-care, Martin suggests additional self-care strategies when you’re facing a stressful or potentially triggering holiday event, including deciding in advance how long you plan to say before exiting. “You might try bookending with calming or soothing activities planned before and after the event, such as drinking tea with a blanket or talking with a trusted support person,” she said. “Knowing what to expect and having space to let your nervous system reset can be very useful when we feel overwhelmed.”
The opinions expressed in reader comments are those of the author only and do not reflect the opinions of The Seattle Times.
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