by Deniss Pleiner, M.A.
The holiday season brings us together with family-- and that's not always the best experience for our nervous system. As with all things, the holidays can be complicated: we may enjoy some aspects of the season and find that we are triggered by others.
As BIPOC adults, we may even feel obligated to participate in family gatherings even if it hurts our mental health. Our collective cultures bring us strength but the value of family can sometimes be distorted to dismiss our own needs and identity.
And when you've dedicated time to heal your wounds and protect your mental health, setting boundaries around the triggers becomes even more important so we put together some of our favorite strategies to help you build a plan (that works for you) for those holiday gathering.
As always keep in mind that these are suggestions and we always recommend that you seek out personalized professional support-- while we are therapists, we are not your therapist. (But if you would like us to be, you can request a free consultation here!)
1. Prepare Your Mind:
To prepare your mind, sit back and reflect on what you think might be triggering for you during this family gathering. Write down people, conversation topics, etc. that may be activating for you. We'll plan some coping tools for them as we go on.
The second piece is to calm your mind: use some affirmations (we put together an affirmations deck for you at our Wellness Store) and remember: worst-case scenarios only help to plan and prepare but we cannot assume they will come true. Even though you cannot control what others say or do, you have a lot of control over how you respond to others and how you take care of yourself.
2. Prepare & Care for Your Body:
A great way to prepare your body is by engaging in some grounding activities like going for a walk, meditation, journaling, drinking tea, etc. before heading to the event. You can create a whole routine around this if you plan a calming day/morning before the event (this can also include spending time with safe people earlier in the day virtual or in person).
These coping tools can also be very helpful during the event: you can practice deep breathes, affirmations, and make use of any tactile grounding tools like rubber bands, magnets, clickers, etc. to help you self-soothe throughout the family gathering.
At the end of the event your nervous system might also need some caring for so we encourage you to also make use of these tools at the end of the night or make a plan for the morning after. A self-soothing routine like the one we talked about for before the event can be helpful. If you are staying with family for a few days, you can go for a walk to create mental and emotional space for yourself.
3. Take breaks throughout:
Taking breaks during a family gathering can be tricky but it can work if you are creative. Make physical and emotional room for yourself by stepping outside for fresh air, go to the restroom to splash some water on your face, or head to the kitchen for a glass of water.
This will help keep you from feeling overwhelmed or reactive. The more grounded you feel, the less likely you are to snap and the more you can protect your inner peace. You can excuse yourself by saying something as simple as "I'll be right back" or "I'm going to go get some water."
4. Prepare Boundary Scripts:
Prepare some boundary phrases for the list of people and topics you made than can be triggering or activating for you.
Ask yourself what would be the best, realistic version of these interactions. And keep in mind that your boundary setting will look different than those of others.
You must asses for safety: how safe do you feel with this person? Perhaps you feel comfortable saying "I am not comfortable with this topic, can we talk about something else?" or "We don't have to agree, this is my value/opinion." But you may not feel safe enough in the relationship to do so. So perhaps your boundaries will look more like simply not engaging further in a topic by changing the subject or excusing yourself politely and walking away.
If you need some help with creating and setting boundaries, check out some of our templates.
5. Take baby steps:
Setting boundaries takes practice. Whatever you ideal boundary is-- it might take some time to get there, and that's ok. If it feels to hard now, ask yourself: what can I do?
Maybe your goal is to say no altogether to some family gatherings but it's too hard right now. You'll get there. Start by setting boundaries during the events first.
Maybe the thought of not spending time with your family seems wrong. Then you don't need to. Your boundaries are yours. They need to align with your values.
Whatever your ultimate goal, break it down into baby steps. They will still move you forward.
A Few Last Words:
When we think of setting boundaries, we fear other people's reactions. That they might abandon us, reject us, judge us. But the truth is that we 1) do not know what they will actually do and 2) we have no control over it anyway.
Boundaries are meant to create safety for you. They are about changing your behaviors and patterns so that you can be proud of the person you are and the life you are building for yourself. Take it slow. Have some self-compassion.
Deniss Pleiner, M.A. is the founder and Clinical Director of TOC Therapy-- a group
practice in California tailored to meet the mental
health needs of BIPOC adults through
online individual and couple's therapy. As Clinical Director, Deniss guides the clinical development of TOC Therapy Associates and oversees clinical services and offerings. Deniss also works as a Mental Health Advocate, hosting workshops for organizations interested in supporting their
member's mental health and developing emotionally intelligent leadership.