The holidays are full of gifts, parties, festive meals, and twinkling lights. Unfortunately, there are also awkward encounters with friends, family, or coworkers.
Sometimes those folks comment on our bodies, or our food choices, in ways that make us feel uncomfortable. Sometimes they insist on talking about controversial or trendy topics while we're just trying to enjoy the party or gathering. These moments can turn a happy time into an incredibly stressful and unenjoyable one, and as we all know, it's not just relegated to the holidays.
If you find yourself dreading social events for these reasons, the end of 2021 may be an excellent time to assess how well you establish and enforce your personal boundaries. Taking the time and effort to do that assessment will give you a leg up on determining how much of your physical and emotional energy (and space) you allow others to take. The new year offers a perfect time to implement changes, especially if you notice deficiencies in your boundary-setting efforts.
Boundaries help you clearly identify what types of communication and behavior are acceptable to you and how you'll respond if someone says or does something outside those lines.
For many of us, that means trying to avoid negative food and body-image behaviors and conversations. It may also mean making sure to eat foods you enjoy and, conversely, to not be pressured to eat food you don't want.
For others, it may mean avoiding politics or religion and the triggering behavior that can easily eradicate social boundaries.
"Dieting and weight are unfortunately common conversation topics during the holidays," said registered dietitian Kelly Martin founder of Attune Nutrition. "Many of us have experienced weight changes during the pandemic, and it can be a source of stress when we are gathering with people we haven't seen in person for a while."
When meeting with coworkers, family, or friends, she suggests we stay away from comments about people's bodies or how their appearances have changed. "Instead, try reframing your focus on connection and letting people know how glad you are to see them during this time."
It's hard to deflect the conversation when it comes around to include food and ourselves. Often, we take of ourselves last.
If setting and verbalizing boundaries are challenging for you, you may want to analyze why that is. Often the tension between setting boundaries or "being nice" isn't as much about not wanting to make others uncomfortable as it is about how difficult it is to sit within our own discomfort. No social gathering is an ideal time or place to practice being OK with this sort of discomfort, but Ms. Martin's simple script is a helpful way of establishing boundaries without having to educate others.
When you need to set a boundary, do it clearly, calmly, firmly, and respectfully — don't justify, get angry or apologize. (You can't establish a clear boundary successfully if you send mixed messages.) Also, be clear about the consequences of your boundary is ignored. For example, you might call the person out on their behaviors, walk away from the conversation, no longer spend time with the person — or leave the relationship altogether.
While setting boundaries is important for self-care, Martin suggests additional self-care strategies when you're facing a stressful or potentially triggering holiday event, including deciding in advance how long you plan to say before exiting. "You might try bookending with calming or soothing activities planned before and after the event, such as drinking tea with a blanket or talking with a trusted support person," she said. "Knowing what to expect and having space to let your nervous system reset can be very useful when we feel overwhelmed."
Take a moment to assess your boundary-setting practices. With these tips, start this new year with better boundary setting practices and habits, and try to sustain them over the course of the year and throughout the various social situations in your life.