4 Tips on Setting Boundaries with Your Family
The holidays are a time to come together with those we love. Which is also why they can be a pretty stressful time for those of us going back home to see the people who we often have unconditional love for, but many other feelings as well: our family. This time is meant to be a relief from all the hard work you’ve been doing, either at school or at work, and to be able to enjoy quality time together. However, this can also be really overwhelming for those of us who have complicated relationships with our family.
My parents are Pakistani and Muslim immigrants who grew up in a completely different time and culture than I did, so going home for the holidays – even if we don’t technically celebrate them – can be a very complex and challenging time. Every time I go back home, I have to pretend I don’t drink, I can’t wear certain clothes, I have to make sure a few choice tattoos and/or piercings are hidden, and I generally have to be a kind of dimmer version of myself to avoid any unnecessary conflict. My therapist noticed recently that when my family visited me over the summer, my usually bright pink hair had faded into a light blonde and I hadn’t bothered to touch it up. It was like being with my family made me turn into a less “me” version of me.
This understandably can happen when you feel like you are not able to be your most authentic or best version of yourself with them. For me, it feels like I’m two different people – in my adult life, I’m a very progressive, forward-thinking, and compassionate woman who has agency and who has worked hard to put together this idea of who I am that I’m actually pretty proud of. And as soon as I go back home, I revert to being the grumpy, sad, middle child who can’t talk about her feelings, who has attachment issues and who is riddled with insecurities and an overwhelming feeling of responsibility for everyone’s happiness but her own.
It is completely exhausting bouncing between these two roles.
So here’s what I think is important to keep in mind when you’re back at home this holiday season to keep you both afloat and sane:
1) You are not responsible for your family’s happiness
This is a hard one to internalize. I cannot even begin to count all of the strained silent dinners, tears on supposed happy days, and fights so loud that I thought the neighbors would have called the police that I took upon myself to fix. I thought it was my responsibility to fix my parents’ catastrophe of a marriage, and to act as an emotional partner for each of my parents when the other was absent for them. I put so much pressure on myself to be the glue of a family that was clearly already crumbling that I ended up doing more harm to myself than good to anyone else. Say it with me now: Everyone is responsible for their own happiness. If your family members are unhappy, you need to be able to trust that they have the capabilities to make themselves feel better. Their emotional weight is not your burden to carry and it never was.
Too often we grow up in unhealthy environments that lead us to believe from an early age that it is our job to make our parents or family members feel better, and that if they are unhappy that it is somehow our fault. It is not your fault that they are unhappy. If they need your help, they need to directly ask for it. You cannot live your life constantly trying to figure out what will make them happier when they are not willing to do the same for themselves. And you can only give them as much help as you feel comfortable giving without draining your own store of happiness. It helps no one when you both are miserable.
Our familiy can be really good at making us feel guilty for not spending time with them or for not giving their problems all of our emotional energy, and sometimes that feeling of guilt is truly too overwhelming to handle. But please remember that you are completely entitled to reserve that energy for yourself.
2) Forcing family time to be perfect will almost always disappoint
There is SO much pressure for the time you spend back at home to be the picture of perfect quality family time. Especially when you are finally coming back after months away at college or your high-pressure job that you barely get any vacation days from. But the ironic thing about forcing everyone to be perfect is that the more you try to do it, the worse it gets. It’s a fickle thing; there has to be a point where you let go of the idea of what you think a “perfect” family holiday should look like and just accept that your family is not going to be perfect right now, and they might not ever be, and that’s okay. They might never completely agree with your political beliefs, the career choices you make, or the way you choose to look. They also might have a fight during the meal that you so delicately prepared for them, or react badly to that really important thing you built up so much courage to tell them. That does not dictate how much your family loves you or your worth as the strong, complex and loving adult that you are.
3) Making time for yourself is non-negotiable
The last time I visited home, I was so exhausted and depleted from all of the emotional energy my family was taking up during the day, that I would stay up until 4 or 5 am every night just to be able to have some time to myself where I wasn’t constantly feeling guilty for not spending time with my parents. This time around, I refuse to do that. Yes, you are visiting your family after maybe months of not seeing them, and yes, it is important to spend quality time with them since this time is precious. But it is just as, if not more, important to have time to yourself too. Whether that is taking your dad’s car for a long drive alone in your childhood neighborhood or specifically making plans to go see a movie by yourself, or even catching up on your journaling at a café nearby, you’ll probably be better equipped to handle your family drama if you allot time for yourself to enjoy activities that allow you to reconnect with yourself.
And when you make plans, stick to them. Hold yourself to them and stand your ground if your parents or family members get annoyed or want you to move them around. If they cannot respect this boundary of yours, you can politely but firmly tell them that this will allow you to be more present with them later. Alternatively, you could make plans with them later in the day as a compromise. Boundaries are meant to be kind and to save relationships, not ruin them. By taking your time for yourself when you need it, you will allow yourself to be a better listener, sibling, partner, or friend to them later.
4) You define you
It can be extremely vulnerable and often draining to give your family all of the details of your life you sometimes wish you could share with them. All of their opinions and pieces of advice that are intended to be given with love can often be smothering and hurtful instead of helpful.
Fielding questions about your future plans or life goals can feel like going into a battlefield, where you need to shield yourself from the potentially hurtful thoughts and opinions of your parents or relatives. Avoiding comments on the weight you’ve put on or lost or when you’re going to get married is enough to make you vow never to have children of your own so they never have to be subjected to this.
All of this can make you feel like your life choices and decisions are not really respected or valid, especially for those of us who crave that validation from our parents that we may not have gotten as children. It is important to remember that, even though your parents did raise you, you are the one who has gotten yourself through your hardest moments, and who has done the work to get you where you are now. That is worth something. Give yourself more credit for that.
It’s all too easy to forget what values the holidays are really supposed to be for – for gratefulness, love, forgiveness, joy, and the list goes on. This holiday season, bring those qualities inward. Internalize gratitude for your mind and your body that have allowed you to do all you have done and for the ability to come home for the holidays. Feel love for qualities that – for better or for worse – make you uniquely yourself. Forgive yourself for when you haven’t been able to meet your own high expectations. Lean in to joy and savor the good in each moment to enjoy the simple pleasures of this season; whether that’s hot cocoa and a book, or laughing with your little sister at your dad’s corny jokes. The holidays can be a truly special time to appreciate and cherish not only the people who you consider family, but also the person you have become after yet another circle around the sun.
Have you dealt with stress around coming home for the holidays? Check out our program “Adulting With Parents” in the Sanity & Self app for even more helpful tips! Comment below on how you navigate self-care when at home with your family!
About the Author
Sophia Uppal is a content editor at Sanity & Self and an aspiring therapist. She lives and loves all things emotional and aims to empower women of all different backgrounds on their self-care journeys. She writes with a mindful and culturally-aware perspective and loves sharing her thoughts to break the stigma around mental illness! You can visit Sophia online at www.sophiauppal.com.