Clients tell me all the time, “I hate the holidays”. There are many stressors as people are attending family gatherings and trying to meet everyone’s expectations for the season. Being with family can often trigger old wounds, cause you to fall back into past roles from growing up, and end up with hurt feelings or fights. One of the key things to do when approaching the stress of the holiday season is to set emotional boundaries. An emotional boundary is when you protect yourself emotionally from a person who isn’t safe for you. This could be someone who is overly critical and judgmental, creates emotional tension, or someone who triggers emotional pain for you.
When setting emotional boundaries, you are surrounding yourself with an invisible shield of protection from the unsafe person. Part of this is expecting them to be how they have “always been” and do what they have “always done”. If you expect it, it won’t hurt as bad. You have predicted the pain- so it has less of an impact. Lowering your expectations for the unsafe person to be somehow different this time will also help your shield to be stronger. If you set your hopes too high that they won’t do what they always have done, then you are sure to be disappointed. It is common to say to yourself “Of course they did ____. That is what they do” when you have good emotional boundaries.
There have been many family gatherings I have left and vented to my husband or sister-in-laws about who said what and what they did. The problem is I let them get to me. I was vulnerable with a lack of emotional boundaries and I expected the unsafe person to be someone they can’t be. As I grieve the “ideal” relationships I wish I could have with some family members, I find that my emotions are more stable and not hugely affected after a family gathering. I expect the dysfunction- I almost make a game of it now in seeing how long it will take before it starts. Sure I am sad at the reality sometimes, but I accept them for who they are and I define my relationship with them, which gives me more control. So as I prepare for the holiday craziness ahead, I sharpen my emotional boundaries. I laugh at the possibilities of dysfunction. And I grieve that some of these relationships will never reach where I had once hoped they would be. I look forward to this holiday season- who knows what craziness is right about the corner!
Teri Claassen MSW, LCSW is a licensed therapist at Imagine Hope Counseling Group. Teri enjoys doing marriage counseling, individual counseling, couples and relationship counseling. Teri also does family counseling, child counseling, and adolescent counseling. Imagine Hope serves the Indianapolis area, including the surrounding areas of Carmel, Fishers, Noblesville, Zionsville, and Westfield.