While the holidays can be great fun, the truth is that for most of us, it is one of the most stressful times of year. And if you have a highly-charged or dysfunctional family dynamic, you might find yourself driven to a breaking point.
But holidays can also provide you with a perfect opportunity to start setting healthy boundaries and improving your relationships at home and at work!
Natalie lives in a bustling city and runs a boutique jewelry shop in a hip part of town. She has two small daughters with her husband, a film industry professional she met in college. Like other retailers, the holiday season is the busiest time of year, and Natalie was relieved when her family offered to start coming to their house so they could avoid travel stress with two small children.
Every winter Natalie’s home is descended upon by her dad and stepmom, her siblings and their kids, and two of her husband’s cousins. It’s a full house, but Natalie enjoys hosting and appreciates them coming to her. That said, the week-long visits have also been stressful every year because of core differences in lifestyle and values between her nuclear family and that of extended family members.
Natalie has always considered herself the black sheep of her siblings. She prefers the hustle and bustle of city, while they like the quiet of the country. Her political views are liberal and modern, while her family has more traditional values. Natalie‘s nuclear family reflects her modern ideals, where household roles aren’t gender-oriented, and they have a mix of friends from all walks of life.
These differences never mattered much when she stayed at her parent’s house for the holidays, because it was easy to keep her opinions to herself, and blend into the environment. But other family members are more vocal about their opinions, so when the situation reversed, she has found herself, her husband, her kids — and even her city — under constant fire from her visiting relatives. The constant judgment felt unbearable, and she was finding her self wanting to lash out at someone — or run and hide!
A few days into last year’s holiday visit, Natalie came to her regular coaching call brimming with the tensions that were all around her home. She had been desperately trying to play peacekeeper while her husband ducked out of the room whenever things got tense.
They were both feeling the stress of all the strong personalities in their home, yet neither had a functional strategy for managing the situation. They had five days to go, and Natalie realized they needed help in getting a handle on these relationships, so she could feel at home in her own house!
Natalie was up against a very common holiday stressor — a group who are emotionally close, but with different perspectives and communication styles. Natalie’s natural style was to go along with her relatives and pretend she shared their views, as a way to reduce as much conflict as possible. Her relatives, however, preferred to argue and make sure their opinions were heard even if they couldn’t get everyone to agree with them.
Neither style was working for the group, so our goal was to help Natalie set stronger and healthier boundaries, to protect her from feeling drained and stressed. To get started, we pulled out the boundaries model that we use at Aspyrre to help people get clarity on the source of their relationship stress.
#1) Survey the Health of Your Relationship Boundaries
This tool asks the question, “Who is responsible for each other’s thoughts, feelings and behaviors?” While the obvious answer to that question is that each of us is responsible for our own thoughts, feelings and behaviors, most people discover that when they experience anxiety or exhaustion in a relationship, it’s because without realizing it they are sitting on one end or the other of the responsibility spectrum.
For example, Natalie’s stepmom would often say things like:
- “How could you abandon me by not bringing the kids to Thanksgiving this year!” or
- “When you rush, rush, rush with this fast-paced city lifestyle, it ruins our family time”
These words hold other people responsible for her happiness, creating anxiety for her, and putting an emotional burden on those around her.
On the other end of the spectrum Natalie would often find herself saying things like:
- “I’ll let my stepmom make the holiday dinner even though no one likes her cooking, because I don’t want to make her feel bad.”
- Or to her brother, “I’m sorry you’re feeling so frustrated with Dad. Do you want me to talk to him and see if I can get him to go easier on you about your layoff?”
Using the boundaries diagram can help you notice when you are either taking too much responsibility for others, or giving others too much responsibility for yourself. The awareness by itself can help you naturally move towards the middle of the spectrum, which feels cleaner and less stressful.
# 2) Determine Appropriate Ways to “Clean Up” Your Relationship Boundaries
Natalie realized that she was taking on too much responsibility for other people’s feelings. But even with this awareness, she needed some tangible tips to help her move away from her tendency to “rescue” people — and instead act with compassion while remaining dispassionate.
I asked Natalie to describe her ideal outcomes with the recurring situations she experienced, and we brainstormed on specific things she could say or do to clean things up:
- When people got into heated political discussions, she wished they would simply drop the subject. There was already so much about politics in the news, and while she didn’t want to ignore these important social issues, she preferred to discuss them with people outside of her family, where the emotional stakes were lower.
- One way to manage this situation might be to request that the family keep politics out of the holiday visit.
- Natalie felt like she was alway tip-toeing around her stepmom, who had strong opinions and tendency to blame others for her feelings. She wished she could listen to these outbursts with respect and then confidently let go instead of trying to make her feel better.
- In this situation, avoiding the topic might only add fuel to the fire, so we decided that Natalie could try out some stock phrases to express sympathy, and then move on quickly to a concrete task that would distract her from jumping into rescue mode.
- A key stressor for Natalie was the feeling that she was being judged as a parent. When people made comments or gave their insight, she felt put down and she questioned herself.
- This area would likely be the hardest place for Natalie to set boundaries because it came from a deep-rooted emotional place. She would perhaps do best to first begin recognizing when the feeling cropped up. Was she actually unhappy with her parenting, or did she simply feel self doubt due to external judgement? If she could discern which it was, then she could either think of ways to react better next time, or work to let go of the story that they thought she was a terrible parent just because they made a comment or stepped in. A key approach was to decide where she would place boundaries — or what comments she was willing to take from family.
What Natalie Did
To start with something simple, Natalie decided she would request that the family steer clear of controversial subjects the next time a politically-charged or other controversial topic came up. She would ask for the family to instead focus on things they shared in common, such as travel dreams, home projects, and outdoor recreation.
Of course it didn’t take long for everyone to start debating the merits of Obamacare, so Natalie politely asked, “Could we avoid political debates for the holiday week, please? I believe in talking these social questions out, but during this time I’d rather we focus on things we share in common as a family. Would anyone like to play cards?”
A few snarky comments were made, but everyone shifted to the card game, and they laughed and teased each other in a much more congenial way. Natalie had to repeat this general request a few times, but eventually everyone caught on and stopped focusing so much on divisive issues, which diffused a lot of the tension she’d been feeling.
That same night, after she put the girls to bed, a perfect opportunity showed up for Natalie to try setting a healthy boundary with her stepmom. Delores launched into a dissertation on the lack of discipline in children today, and how she would have handled the bedtime situation with more sternness. Natalie felt her blood start to boil, and she wanted to storm away and shut herself in her room. Instead, she took a deep breath.
“When you imply that sternness is the only good option in this situation, I feel disrespected as a mom. Julia is very sensitive, so while she may have overstepped tonight, she responds best to a private conversation after she has cooled down. I’ve learned that through trial and error.”
Her stepmom quickly retorted, “Well!…” and sulked away. It was painful to simply let her go, but Natalie stood her ground and reminded herself that she was not responsible for her anyone else’s feelings. She knew she wouldn’t change her stepmom’s mind by speaking up, but by speaking up for her own beliefs, she began the process of respecting herself, while allowing others to be themselves.
This type of situation cropped up numerous other times with other relatives, and each time Natalie took a step back from her emotional response. Sometimes she found that a relative was trying to be helpful and simply had a different approach. In those situations, Natalie was willing to meet them in the middle and allow her kids to be exposed to different discipline styles. And when someone overstepped healthy boundaries with their comments, Natalie simply shared that she was not open to input about her parenting.
Natalie actually found this to be beneficial once she spoke up and stopped doubting herself. Sometimes the more opinionated members of the family still overstep, so Natalie anticipates that she’ll continue working on boundary setting for quite some time.
What Natalie Learned and How She Changed Because of It
When Natalie looked at the Relationship Boundaries diagram again, she realized something important. Setting healthy boundaries with her kids had always been easy for Natalie because she didn’t doubt herself, nor feel the need to appease or rescue them emotionally. She felt it was her job to raise emotionally competent people, and disappointment, hurt, and all other emotions were a part of that learning process.
Natalie now worked to cultivate that same sense of confidence in her interactions with her other family members. She knew they would always have their differences, so she worked with her new tools to create space for acknowledging the other person’s beliefs and feelings without trying to change them. She stopped trying to fix things for people, and practiced speaking more honestly and calmly, knowing that when people disagreed with her she still had the right to hold on to her own beliefs and opinions.
When you find yourself experiencing high-stress dynamics, you can use the same tools and steps Natalie did to create a better quality interaction. Whether at home or work — you can use the Relationship Boundaries diagram to identify where you and others generally operate. Then if needed, you can shift your own style to a healthier middle-ground, which invites others to do the same! Ultimately, the more you work on building clean boundaries, the easier it will be have authentic, high quality conversations, and you’ll feel lighter and less stressed in the process!
If you want to discuss holiday or other relationship stressors, feel free to contact Nahid for a complimentary consultation.
Written by Heather Rice in collaboration with Nahid Casazza for coaching content.