The Holidays can be a great opportunity to spend quality time with family and friends but what happens when this is forced on you? How do you navigate this tricky conversation with people who love you and genuinely care about you and let them know that you need your personal space and time, without hurting their feelings? I had the same questions and miserably failed at communicating my needs and having them respected for many years before learning to successfully establish boundaries and sticking to them.
Knowing when you’ve hit your limit
The first problem was understanding my own limits. I am an introverted person and I tend to feel exhausted after spending time with a group of friends or family. But, for fear of offending loved ones, I have stifled my yawns and rubbed my eyes red to be ‘present’ through long conversations. Afterwards, I feel drained and need a nap to invigorate myself back into action. Not knowing when to say ‘No’ or ‘Enough’ is another way in which I have often over-committed myself and end up feeling overwhelmed. I cannot count the number of times I’ve got a stomach ache because of overeating at a relative’s place because I didn’t want to disappoint them. Mental health is no different. The impact, though less acutely pronounced, is on a long-term, chronic basis.
The key is to identify symptoms and patterns of exhaustion in yourself and over time become a better judge of your limits. People might try to make you feel guilty, saying that you’re too rigid and boxed in, but you should never feel bad about respecting yourself and your mental health. One way in which I have learnt to enforce this limit to myself, is through my smartphone. I have set it to automatically turn on sleep mode at bedtime. This silences notifications and provides a gentle nudge to wind down. Yes, I have spent time surfing YouTube and Instagram, after it is my bedtime, but providing this hard physical limit, means that you are now explicitly aware that you’ve crossed your own limits.
Communicating your boundaries
The view on being in your comfort zone is a two-faced one. On one hand, we need to respect ourselves enough to say, “Enough is enough”, but on the other, if we don’t force ourselves into unfamiliar territory, how will we ever grow? This is a slippery slope and only you can be a good judge and honest evaluator of when you are recognizing that the situation is beyond your ability and when you’re just being lazy. And, you only need to be honest with yourself and mindful about these mannerisms, because only through conscious recognition will you be able to even begin to communicate your limits effectively to others. That is because most people can tell when you lie, this might not even be conscious, but they might make this judgement about you and use this as a basis to subconsciously mark your words to be lies every other time.
Once this fact sinks in, next comes the more difficult part – being polite but firm. This is a skill that is so useful in life that there must be complete courses on this taught at school. But alas! Where our school curriculum falls short, the school of life must step in. I am not great at this skill but I have seen people who are particularly well versed in effective but courteous communication. One of my recollections takes me back to the Resident Services at my apartments. I was there only for the latter part of the conversation, so, I didn’t know what the resident’s issue was. This was part of what the agent said to the resident,
“I understand that the maintenance team had missed the appointment at your place. The email must’ve slipped through our notice. I am sorry about that. But, we cannot reschedule your appointment on the coming Thursday. It is a Holiday and we don’t work that day. I can always look into my calendar and see which time after the Holidays works for both of us, but that is the best I can do right now.”
Delivered without a pause, this effectively conveyed that the service agent was sincerely apologetic, was willing to work towards a solution while also firmly denying the resident’s demand to work during a holiday. It takes a little bit of knack and patience to convey our limits and personal boundaries to people who aren’t the most understanding but this saves us a lot of pain in the future if we’re being open right up front.
Respecting your boundaries – yourself!
This could be the most difficult and yet the most important step in your journey to set proper boundaries and enforce them – respecting your boundaries yourself. The reason why this is so important might not be what you’re thinking. It is the most crucial step, primarily because humans are generally narcissistic (not to be confused with Narcissistic Personality disorder). Most people are so in their own heads that your own convictions and beliefs about yourself, might become the yardstick by which we measure how others perceive us.
Simply put, you are either your biggest cheerleader or your harshest critic. Once we become aware of our limits, and have communicated them to others, we must learn to enforce them. This does not come naturally to us. Ironically, we are often left feeling guilty or sometimes too strict when we are on our own side. The trick (or not really) to moving through the guilt is to go back to the foundation, the reasons why you started this journey and reinforce the bitter memories of when you were a pushover and allowed people to walk all over you. While the current situation might not be as serious as your original foundational memories, you must always use them as a big red warning sign to what it might turn into. So, through this repeated process of reinforcement of ‘why’ and ‘what’ your limits are, you can begin to see a world of difference in how other people treat you.
Finally, sometimes, even after taking the necessary steps to communicate and enforce your boundaries to others, this could be a hard pill for them to swallow. For instance, a friend might be constantly dumping their troubles on you, while you are already enervated and are having a rough time. In this scenario, it feels wrong to ask them to stop complaining and even if we had previously communicated this to that person, we end up making excuses for them and do not respect the fact that trying to heal them is eating away at yourself. In my personal experience, this generally happens when there is an inherent imbalance in the dynamic of the relationship. One is always playing the role of the listener, the healer and the giver while the other always complains, is the only one with issues and constantly consumes. Due to non-verbal communication, this dynamic slowly crystallizes into permanency and becomes the norm. And the earlier you try to wean the other off this feeling, the better. But even after years of knowing someone, it is never too late to completely re-evaluate your relationship and communicate your boundaries to them.
Coming back to the most jolly time of the year – the Holidays, it can be particularly tricky to enforce these limits. This can be of greater significance to someone going through a serious mental health issue, like depression, anorexia or bulimia. Forcing yourself to conform to the society’s dictation of the “correct” way of spending your Holidays might mean that you might have to undergo some seriously stressful situations and for some, it might be the final straw that shoves them deeper into their crisis. For many of us, things might not be as serious but having this thought at the back of your mind might help you be on the watch for stress in your loved ones. You can be that person who would respect their boundaries and allow them to flourish without reservations in your company.