Along with your roast turkey, cranberry sauce and green bean casserole, you will—hopefully—be serving up a generous portion of healthy boundaries! (We’ll circle back to the importance of boundaries shortly.)
The Hallmark version of Thanksgiving depicts cozy, happy family gatherings; perfectly dressed hosts and guests; well-behaved children; and mouthwatering food served in a beautifully decorated home with everything in its place.
Many clients with whom I work feel a great deal of distress this time of year, especially around navigating relational and financial challenges.
Their stress can be triggered by:
- Having to come into contact with family members who are narcissistic and/or inflicted physical, emotional or sexual abuse in the past.
- An overcommitted social schedule, OR being purposely excluded from family gatherings.
- Concerns around food. Feeling tempted to eat more than usual and self-sabotaging weight management efforts. Eating more of the wrong foods that worsen a chronic health condition, like diabetes, heart disease or an autoimmune condition. Feeling unaccepted for having a different way of eating than the rest of the family (e.g., being a vegetarian or vegan in a family of meat-lovers at Thanksgiving). Being pressured to eat traditional Thanksgiving dishes (e.g., mac and cheese, cornbread dressing, biscuits) by family or friends who believe your food sensitivities / intolerances are “all in your head”.
- Feeling pressured to conform to family expectations of how and/or where you will spend time with them.
- Feeling obligated to overspend on travel, gifts or food when you are unemployed, underemployed or on a tight budget.
- Feeling pressured to deliver or to have a “perfect” Thanksgiving experience (e.g., be a perfect host or cook a perfect meal).
- Over-functioning. Attending to everyone else’s needs but your own.
This is why having boundaries—as well as respecting the boundaries of others—is essential for emotional, mental and physical well-being, especially during the holidays. It is the ultimate act of self-care.
What is a boundary?
Boundaries define what we let into our life—and what we keep out.
Perhaps this proverb, often attributed to poet Robert Frost, says it best.
“Good fences make good neighbors”.
Physical boundaries, like a house on a lovely piece of property with a fence around it, are generally clear and easy to respect. The fence sets clear boundaries, indicating where your property ends—and where your neighbor’s property begins. You and your neighbors know what belongs to whom—and where NOT to cross the line (because of the fence).
Psychological boundaries, however, are not visible and can feel more challenging to set and enforce.
Having grown up in an authoritarian-style family structure, I often struggled with setting boundaries because I did not want to be perceived as “mean” or “selfish”. An example comes to mind. Years ago, Pete, an elderly neighbor in his 80s, used to stand at the entrance of the Manhattan apartment building where I lived. He loved to chat with tenants as they were coming or going. At the time, I was a freelance writer who worked from home. I juggled multiple deadlines, but I always took a break mid-day for my daily run along the East River. Of course, I would run into Pete, who flirted shamelessly with me, while talking non-stop. Culturally, I was raised to be polite and deferential to elders and, certainly, someone who was 50+ years older than myself qualified as an “elder”!
Over time, however, I went from genuinely enjoying our conversations, to dreading running into him—not because of the flirting, but because I felt “trapped”, like I was being held “hostage” in our conversations. I started feeling resentful because, in my mind, Pete should have known that I was very busy and had limited personal time. It got to the point where I began peeking around the stairwell first to see if he was at the entrance. If he was there, I returned to my apartment, where I would simmer and stew!
I even began asking my husband if he could go downstairs and check if “the coast was clear”. Bemused by my avoidant behavior, my husband suggested that, instead of stopping to say “hello”, I simply walk past Pete and say “hello” with a friendly smile and wave, thereby creating a physical boundary that prevented engagement. If he began talking, I would just tell him that I was going for my run. It was a simple solution that worked beautifully.
The obstacles to setting a boundary with Pete were ones that I had created in my own mind. I had expected poor Pete to read my mind. I had projected my thoughts onto him; e.g., he would think I was “mean” if I did not come to a full stop and chat with him. I had expected him to somehow “know” my boundary when, in reality, it was my responsibility to make my boundary clear—not his.
Psychological boundaries are limits that we identify for ourselves; then, we enforce through verbal communication and/or the actions we take.
Boundaries may be dictated by your values, beliefs, and experiences.
Boundaries characterize every relationship we have, from family, friends, and romantic partners; to work colleagues, neighbors and people in positions of authority; and even complete strangers. Boundaries create a personal space that enables us to stay aligned with who we are. When applied—and respected—boundaries provide a sense of mutual respect, safety, expectations and clarity.
When we don’t set boundaries, we can find ourselves in unhealthy relationships, compromising situations and toxic environments that affect our mental, emotional, and physical well-being.
Examples of boundaries can include…
You may have boundaries around your time.
I don’t talk on the phone—even with friends and family—after 9PM on weekdays.
I am unavailable to meet on Saturdays; I usually spend the day with my kids.
You may have boundaries around your energy.
The party sounds like loads of fun. Thank you for inviting me. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to make it.
Thank you for suggesting that I host the weekly Book Club meetings. Unfortunately, I have to decline. I am unable to provide a venue.
You may have boundaries in relationships.
I need to feel safe before I can be sexually intimate with you. This means that we agree to see each other exclusively, and we both get tested for STDs (sexually transmitted diseases).
When I feel upset; sometimes, I just need to vent. When you interrupt me with suggestions on how to “fix” things, I don’t feel heard. If I want your advice, I’ll let you know.
You may have boundaries around communication and/or how you want to be treated.
I feel invisible when I try to express my opinion, and you shout me down. I am leaving now. Let’s revisit this conversation when you’re ready to have a civil conversation and to hear what I have to say.
I feel frustrated and unappreciated when I’ve spent time preparing a nice meal for us, and you are distracted at the table, answering emails and texts. I’d like to connect with you at the end of our busy day: could you please leave your phone in the office when we eat dinner together?
Okay. We know that boundaries are important. But why are they SO hard to apply—especially at Thanksgiving?!
It may be because:
1. You are uncomfortable with perceived or real conflict.
2. You don’t want to be thought of as “mean”, “difficult”, “not cool” or “not nice”.
3. You don’t want to feel rejected or excluded, so you “go along to get along”.
4. You don’t feel “good enough”, so you don’t feel worthy of having needs—and you second-guess yourself. For example, “Maybe I am being too ‘selfish’ about not wanting to stay at my parents’ house—even though they constantly criticize my appearance and lifestyle choices.”
5. You are a people-pleaser and tend to put others’ needs before your own.
6. You were raised in a family where the concept of boundaries was foreign. Even if you tried to set boundaries, they were ignored, ridiculed, or weaponized.
Many factors can complicate the boundary-setting process at Thanksgiving, a time when expectations run high.
Maybe you’re visiting family with whom you don’t typically spend much time; you may have traveled a long distance to see them—and you don’t want to “rock the boat” while there. There may be a tendency to slip into childhood roles. For example, you and your siblings start bickering three seconds after you greet each other. Or family members still treat you like a 12-year-old child instead of a 42-year-old mother of two. Maybe your family rehashes embarrassing stories from your childhood, like the time you were 5 and had an “accident” at the mall.
Family members can feel entitled to offer unsolicited advice, opinions, or criticism about everything, from your weight (e.g., Keto will help you lose those 30 pounds!) and appearance( e.g., Wow! You’re looking so ‘distinguished’—pointing to your undereye wrinkles—since the last time we saw each other!); to partner status (e.g., Still single? You can kiss ever having kids ‘good-bye’!) and lifestyle choices (e.g., When are you going to get a ‘real’ job?).
10 Tips for Setting Healthy Boundaries at Thanksgiving
1. Know your WHY.
Get clear about WHY you’re celebrating Thanksgiving at a family member’s home, especially if it’s a family member(s) with whom you have a strained or difficult relationship; this helps “set the tone” for your boundaries.
Let’s say, for example, your sister is hosting Thanksgiving dinner at her house this year. Your sister has always been self-absorbed and controlling, and you’re not close with her. But your kids love their cousins (your sister’s kids) and are excited about seeing them; so, you decide to go for their sake. Spending Thanksgiving at your sister’s also affords you the opportunity to visit with elderly relatives you would not otherwise see. Keeping your WHY in mind will help you….
2. Manage your expectations.
The key is to have realistic expectations. This is not a Lifetime movie! Just because it’s Thanksgiving, challenging relationships or complicated family dynamics will not miraculously change for the better—even if your family is gathering in the same space for the first time in two years after the C*VID debacle.
At Thanksgiving, count on history repeating itself. Parents who start bickering after a few glasses of wine. The family friend who overshares at the table. The uncle who goes on his usual political rant. The relative who can’t stop detailing her every bodily ache and pain. The son-in-law who has a short fuse. In addition to dealing with the drama of the usual cast of characters, you might feel pressured to eat more, drink more, or spend more than you feel comfortable.
When you have realistic expectations, you can adjust your boundaries accordingly. This can help you…
3. Just say “No”.
If you don’t feel up to attending a family gathering, where there is constant drama, bickering, fighting, bullying or a barrage of insults being thrown your way, you can decline an invitation kindly but firmly: “No. I can’t make it this year.” Or: “No. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to join you.” Or: “Thank you for the invitation. Unfortunately, no…I won’t be coming.”
“No” is a complete sentence and does not require an attendant explanation.
If your WHY for attending a specific Thanksgiving gathering is for someone else (e.g., your kids), you can…
4. Anticipate triggers.
The best defense is a good offense. When you anticipate potential triggers, you can decide how you will set your boundaries in advance.
For example, if you have a highly competitive and narcissistic cousin who likes to dominate the conversation and constantly interrupts you anytime you try to express a thought or opinion, you could say: “I feel frustrated that I can’t finish my train of thought because I’m being interrupted. Could I please finish speaking before you share your thoughts?” If your cousin ignores this boundary, you can decide whether you stop talking altogether—or leave the table or room.
Speaking of triggers…
5. Have a list of non-triggering “safe” topics at the ready.
The last 2-1/2 years have been steeped in division, whether it’s politics, gender identity, race, immigration, vaccine status, medical freedom, censorship, the state of the economy or our educational system. Decide in advance what topics are off the table—for you.
Instead, identify what YOU feel comfortable discussing, whether it’s the weather; a new recipe you’re trying; music; or your favorite restaurant, movie or television show…and be mindful of sticking to these topics!
This enables you to…
6. Avoid being baited.
If / when you are being needled to respond to a triggering topic, you can say something like: “I don’t talk about XYZ.” Or: “I’m Switzerland today…100% neutral.” Or: “I don’t know enough about that person / topic to have an opinion.”
If the needling continues, you can…
7. Extract yourself from the conversation mentally and/or physically.
Give yourself a time-out and take deep breaths before replying. Visualize being in a calm and relaxed place. Excuse yourself from the room or table. Go for a walk. Help with clearing the table. Help wash dishes. Check on the kids. Take a nap.
8. Prepare yourself around food.
At Thanksgiving, many people step outside their own boundaries around food. The holiday, itself, as well as family members, encourages overindulgence. Most people will break from routine and consume more sugar, more snacks, more starches and refined carbs; drink more alcohol; and/or eat out more often than they normally would.
Stay mindful. If you are following a specific way of eating—e.g., low-carb, gluten-free, dairy-free, Keto, Paleo or you have food intolerances—decide in advance what you will or can eat. You can let your host know in advance about any food sensitivities or dietary restrictions you have so they do not feel “rejected” by your refusal to eat a certain dish(es). You can also decide if there are one or two specific dishes or alcoholic drinks in which you can indulge—without ill effect—whether it’s an extra helping of sweet potato pie, your grandmother’s famous boiled custard, or a cranberry mule. Decide in advance what “treats” you plan to enjoy—rather than indulge in the moment…only to have eater’s remorse for days to come.
If you are vegetarian or vegan and attending a non-vegetarian Thanksgiving gathering, you may want to bring a dish (or two) that you know you will feel comfortable eating. The same applies if you have any other dietary restrictions. For example, if you are following a gluten-free protocol, you may want to bring a dessert, as traditional dessert offerings are typically wheat flour-based.
Food can be a triggering topic. If you have found your way to better health, improved energy, and weight loss through your food choices, you may be in an evangelical mode about helping others “see” how their food choices can potentially change their life. The Thanksgiving table, however, is not the place to proselytize. Refrain from lecturing others about their food choices.
In the same way that you want others to respect your food choices, you have to respect others’ food choices—even if it goes against what you believe.
Keep in mind: people will only make changes around food and lifestyle if / when they are ready—not because you have told them that they need to stop eating sugar, carbs, or meat!
9. Communicate boundaries clearly—and from an “I” perspective.
How you communicate a boundary can make a difference in being heard—or not. Always start from a place of “I feel”; then, say what you need or want. For example, “I feel uncomfortable when you share news about my ex-husband and the woman for whom he left me. I’m still hurting. Please don’t do that. I’d rather not know.”
Avoid making “You did XYZ” statements, like: “You never help out with the kids—even when I’m under the gun with project deadlines. You are so selfish! Can’t you see how stressed out I am?” The person on the receiving end of this statement hears an accusatory tone and criticism—and, as a result, tunes you out. You’re back to square one.
10. Exit stage left, gracefully—and early if necessary.
We can clearly communicate our boundaries to others. However, keep in mind: we cannot control how other people will respond to our boundaries. There may nasty pushback, feelings of hurt and resentment or utter disregard for your boundaries—no matter how thoughtfully worded or how clearly you’ve stated your limits. We can only control how we react to the negative behavior of others.
If boundary violations persist, you can always take your leave. Or, if the boundary offenders are visitors to your home, you can always ask them to leave.
Setting boundaries can feel uncomfortable, yes. But they also give you the psychological freedom to be true to yourself. And that’s something for which you can be truly grateful.