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Family Boundaries at the Holidays

How’s everybody feeling about Thanksgiving? Are you ready for some family bonding, planning to spend it with friends who make up your “chosen family,” or anticipating some time for solitude? Even without an election, the holiday season can bring up feelings of anxiousness, anger, fear and grief. This year as our country faces some major upheaval, I personally have been worried about the conflicts that might arise at Turkey Time. I’ve been digging through my psychotherapy “toolkit” to find ideas for creating healthy boundaries, diffusing conflict, and taking care of yourself this holiday season.

Set some ground rules. Are there topics that your family cannot engage in without it turning into a shouting match? Consider what it would be like to agree ahead of time on a set of rules for how family members will treat each other. There is a concept called active listening that can help lower the tension when disagreements arise. In active listening, we agree ahead of time to:

• Give each person in the discussion equal time to express themselves

• Use “I” statements to express our own feelings rather than speak for the other person

• Listen fully, without planning our response while the other person is talking

It can be transformational to listen and validate the feelings of someone we disagree with.

Recognize that all feelings are valid. Whatever you are feeling right now and in the weeks ahead, it is okay to feel that way. When we notice our feelings and just let them exist without judging them or acting on them, it gives us the opportunity to put some mental space between the moment the feeling occurs and the moment we decide to act. Try an activity that allows you to breathe into your feelings before reacting to them. Many of my clients find yoga, mindful breathing, or vigorous exercise helps them to do this.

Emotional safety is just as important as physical safety. If there’s anyone in your family who makes you feel emotionally unsafe, you may want to create an emotional safety plan for times when you’re expecting to be around them. Include in the plan:

• An exit strategy (“If Grandma starts criticizing me, I can go outside and play with the dog.”)

• A list of allies who will be present (“I can always go talk to my sister.”)

• Grounding reminders that you can bring with you (“My beaded bracelet makes me feel fierce,” and “The smell of lavender lip balm helps calm me.”)

• Someone in your support network who you can enlist for debriefing conversation after the stressful event (“Can you be available for a call when I’m driving home on Saturday?”)

We are creatures of story. One of the gifts of being human is the ability to create meaning. We get to choose whether the stories we tell are full of discontent and disillusionment, or full of connection and empathy. Is there a story you can tell yourself right now that centers you? A story that reminds you that peace and hope are attainable? A story that you know to be true? Here is the story I am repeating to myself right now:

When I was in kindergarten my best friend’s grandmother went to Germany and brought home a piece of the Berlin Wall. I held it in my hands.

This small story immediate conjures up the sensation of touching an oblong chunk of crumbling, graffitied concrete that is touchpoint for many meanings: Walls can be torn down. Countries can right themselves. Families on different sides can be reunited.

Can you think of a story like this? Maybe it is something you could share with family and friends to highlight values that we all share.

I hope that the upcoming holidays give you many opportunities to build healthy boundaries and strengthen your relationships with others. If you find it would be helpful to talk through these ideas and get extra support, our doors are open at Therapy Austin. Schedule an appointment today-we are here to help!

by Jill Hokanson

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