The holidays usually instill one of two feelings into individuals. The joy of the season as we get to spend more time with the ones we love and give back to those in need, or the sheer and utter terror of panic and anxiety at the idea of dealing with that one relative or side of the family that you spend the rest of the year avoiding. The young adult years I think were the worst for myself especially as friends started to hit major milestones like marriage and kids and I just wasn’t there yet. The subtle questions and hints from family about who you’re dating or if you are dating when you might be more “committed”, or once you are committed when there will be “little ones” running around. As I have gotten older it is the anxiety of helping my daughter, age 5, navigate interactions with individuals she hasn’t seen all year or in months or in some cases never before. So today let’s talk about how you can set boundaries for yourself, your children, and learn how to better cope with all those anxious feelings welling up inside so that you might find that joy of the season that seems to have gotten lost.
Boundaries for you
One of my favorite quotes from researcher, Brené Brown, is “Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves even when we risk disappointing others”. I don’t think anything has ever felt more accurate when it comes to family. We have this biological urge to want to have the approval of our family to “fit in”, to be accepted, it is LITERALLY what everyone wants, including those who state otherwise. As humans we are social creatures and need that connectedness with others to thrive. It is part of our extrinsic value, the value we feel from others, but what many of us forget is our intrinsic value, the value we hold of ourselves. Often, we sacrifice our intrinsic value to get that extrinsic value from those around us in the hopes that we can fit in, but what are we losing in the process?
Setting a boundary is about valuing yourself enough, which can look different for every individual, by deciding what you don’t want to accept from others anymore. This boundary can also look different for everyone. For myself, it was when my mom passed away, everyone had an opinion of her as a person and thought now that she was gone, they were free to share. It hurt me because she was my mother and part of my identity. For some, I stopped visiting, the travel and my time (I repeat MY time) was more valuable than being spent feeling bad about myself for days just to say “I visited”. For others, it was a difficult conversation, letting them know how those comments affected me. Some got it and we were able to move forward, for those that didn’t, it is now an off-limits topic. If they start, I walk away or depending on the relationship, redirect the conversation. My therapist once said, “you get to choose how you remember your mother”, it was one of the most empowering things I had ever heard. It is what gave me the strength to make those hard decisions, for my mother’s memory and my own mental health. This season I encourage you to CHOOSE how you want to experience your holidays and set the boundaries you need to achieve that. When you feel more self-acceptance, it is easier to find the acceptance of others and disregard the lack of acceptance from those that were/are never going to accept you for who you are as a person.
Boundaries for your child
Show of hands, how many of you grew up in families where at either the beginning or end of every gathering you are told something along the lines of “give (insert family member name) a hug” as you are telling everyone either “hello” or “goodbye”? Sound familiar? How many of you dreaded this moment, hated this moment, felt awkward and didn’t want to be touched? This is a real thing in many families. I have spent the better part of almost 10 years now advocating for the prevention of child abuse and this gives me chills every time I think about it. Now many of you would argue that it is disrespectful to not “hug” or essentially “touch” a family member as a form of greeting or departure. I challenge that with the simple question “Respect for who? You, the child or the family member?” Remember that extrinsic value that often superseded our intrinsic one, and what we are losing in the process? Well in this case, in fear of trying to be “respectful”, which is a highly subjective term, we lose body autonomy, often for our children, but even for ourselves.
What is body autonomy you ask, check out more about it here, and for more resources I encourage you to explore the Darkness to Light website. When we lose the power to say when we are uncomfortable in a situation, because we are threatened with discipline or punishment if we don’t comply with the unwanted touch, we make ourselves vulnerable to others. They will use the same verbiage you as a parent use “well if you don’t give me a hug or touch (insert body part), I’m going to tell your parent and then you will get a (insert discipline/punishment)”. Trust me growing up in this type of family myself it seems extreme, but as a survivor of child sexual abuse, trust me it is not. When my daughter was born it was a hot button topic with family and friends, but I have stood my ground and feel better knowing she is comfortable telling people “no” when she doesn’t like something.
How to cope
Anxiety is the body’s response to fear. Fear is an emotional stimulus of evaluation of risk and the unknown. When we experience fear our bodies experience enormous biofeedback with adrenaline, cortisol and other chemicals of the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system. Which affects breathing, heart rate and other nervous system functions. All of these you have the power to reregulate. Breathing is your best friend. I really love the 4-7-8 breathing technique that Dr. Weil uses. When we experience anxiety, we breathe shallower which creates panic in the brain and creates that biofeedback loop that further induces anxiety. Getting more oxygen to the brain can help reduce those feelings. Progressive muscle relaxation is also a great technique to help calm the body by simply tightening and relaxing various muscle groups, Therapist Aid has a wonderful script you can follow here. Lastly, remember that avoiding anxious situations makes them worse, here are two video to help you understand the Cycle of Anxiety and the empowering power of doing it scared @elysemyers.