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Family, Friends and Partners Mental Health Relationships Well-being

Boundaries We Need at Christmas Time

Written by South Pacific Private Ex-client, Anna B who shares her strength, experience and hope from her own recovery journey.

Circle the date (and the space around you!)

As Christmas approaches, many of us will bring out our old neuroses along with the fairy lights.

Weeks or even months in advance, we start to get anxious, overthinking both our own expectations and the expectations of others, fretting about costs, and fantasising about the family dynamics that might flare up on the day. 

When asked about the most effective ways people in recovery can prepare for the holidays, Senior Therapist at South Pacific Private Dianne Young said, “one of the most important things you can do is to think about how to set boundaries and rehearse implementing them in case they are crossed.”

So, what is boundary setting?

Well, think of a boundary as a hula hoop. You are inside the hoop - your emotions and your body are safe and protected. You may be comfortable to have some people inside the hoop in various capacities, but not others. There may be people you want to let in intimately, and those you want to keep a little or a lot further out. 

If someone encroaches on your space in a way that is not okay for you, that is a violation of your boundary. Some potential transgressions are self-explanatory (like physical violence, for example), but others are not necessarily obvious to those around us, and we need to (gently) learn to communicate what we aren’t comfortable with.  

Let’s use two examples: 

  1. Some people in recovery worry about being around alcohol/drugs/binge foods etc. fearing that people will encourage them to pick up. “One won’t hurt”, your brother says. “Get with the Christmas spirit”. 
  2. Others panic about being unable to say no to every request made of them. “Darling, we will need you to make seven different salads and bring three desserts” says your Grandma.  

A healthy way to approach the first scenario could be to have a casual chat in advance with those who you suspect might sabotage your efforts to stay sober, either intentionally or inadvertently. Let them know that you really would really like their support and suggest some ways they might do this. For example:

“Mate, do you mind not offering me anything to drink? That would really help me”. 

If the behaviour continues, it’s time to set a boundary. Here is how: 

“Bro, if you offer me another drink, I will avoid you for the rest of the day. If you continue to offer me drinks, I will leave Christmas lunch immediately”.

Di explains, “To set a boundary, we need to have a consequence that we are 100 percent prepared to follow through with. Don’t choose a consequence that is too hard or unrealistic for you to carry out. You might find that people accidentally violate your boundaries now because you haven’t had any in the past, so you need to renegotiate your relationships - to re-teach people how you wish to be treated - and be prepared to reciprocate. Your relationships will mature if you stick with it.

Bearing that in mind, see how the second scenario might be approached:

“I am really happy to make a garden salad and a wild-rice salad. Could you ask other people to make the remaining salads and desserts?”

And if these suggestions are knocked back and it’s boundary time?

“Grandma, I am able to bring a garden salad and a wild rice salad.”
Deep breath, and say no more.

Set boundaries from a place of love, after you have sought counsel from a sponsor or peer and worked through/inventoried your resentment. Remember you are not doing this to force someone to change their behaviour or manipulate them, you are doing this to take care of yourself. 

Many times we won’t set a boundary, because we fear being disliked or rejected, or we are afraid to hurt the other person. To be clear, boundaries are how we take care of and protect ourselves - they are not a tool for controlling others. We are not attempting to manipulate or present ultimatums - we’re just letting people know what the parameters are for us to be okay. Boundaries may be firm, but they are also loving.  Boundary setting has turned out to be one of the best ways I have strengthened my relationships and created deeper and more mutually respectful connections with others. A space is opened up for honesty and truth. 

So, even if you’ve cooked, set up and cleaned up with no help every single year til now, and although you may have been one of the most riotous Christmas drinkers in the past, you don’t have to take these roles this year and you can feel good about that. Have courage! Trust the process!

Stay safe, be of service, and stay sponsored.

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