Boundaries And The Holidays: Notice Your Internal Limit
Holidays with family can be quite challenging, particularly if you’re on a path of healing, of finding self-love, of figuring out how to support your inner child and reparent yourself, if you’re learning how to deeply attend to your own self-care as an adult in the world. Being with family can be complex, for sure, particularly if you’re not yet skilled in setting boundaries or knowing when you’ve reached your own internal limit.
Boundaries and internal limits weren’t a part of my family life, my friendships, my relationships. I didn’t know what they were, how to feel my limits in my body and to respect them, or how to know I wanted or needed to set a boundary. I didn’t know how to set one without tons of guilt or shame or blame and I certainly didn’t know what to do if the person I set a boundary with didn’t like them.
So I would just cave. Then I would get super resentful, then passive aggressive — not helpful and so antithetical to my own goal of having peace in my heart.
Boundaries are the clear clean emotion-free statement of what you will do for yourself, not to change or control the other person, just to take care of you when someone else does something that’s not working for you.
If you do X, I will do Y.
- If you raise your voice in a conversation, I will step out of the conversation.
- If you drink to the point of excess, I will call you a cab and will ask you to leave my house.
- If you talk about my weight or my body, I will let you know I’m going to change the subject now, or I’ll let you know that I prefer not to talk about my weight.
- If you try to discipline my kids or insist that they give you a hug or a kiss without their consent, I will ask you not to do that. And if you continue, I will ask you to leave my house.
Boundaries are what you will do in response to someone else’s action.
They come from a place of deep self-love and self-care and are stated without emotion, that is they’re not statements laced with guilt, shame, blame, anger. And they can be flexible.
A boundary is not a brick wall. It’s a statement that can open a conversation. If you stay out past midnight, I will likely be asleep when you get home. So a conversation could happen there; a loving or just neutral discussion of timing of plans, for example.
A boundary can be flexible if the boundary setter wants it to be. Boundaries don’t always end the conversation and they can shift and move and grow as needed, and your boundaries are yours. They’re about what you are going to do to take care of yourself, not an attempt to control or manipulate another person. You’re just laying out your own responses in a self-loving kind way, nice and simple.
Then that other person can make their own adult choices about their behavior and you will continue to take care of yourself in your way for you. Boundaries are made from a place of knowing the other person is capable of making their own decisions.
Setting boundaries doesn’t mean that you’re cold or mean or unloving.
Boundaries are about you understanding your limits, honoring them, and clearly stating them. This is an empowering thing for all involved. I will make my choices, you will make yours. It’s a gift to both parties, truly.
When we don’t set boundaries and instead do things that we don’t want to do to attempt to be nice, we are living in a form of dishonesty. We are trying to convince another person to think something of us that we’ll likely resent them for later.
A limit is what you will do in response to someone else, the action only involves you, not what you’ll ask of someone else.
If X happens, I will do Y for and by myself.
I think most of us have experienced feeling like we’ve hit our limit. Sometimes it’s with a person and a conversation, sometimes it’s studying. I remember so many long nights when I was doing my medical training just studying and studying, and it was like I hit a wall. I hit my internal limit.
Sometimes, I would try to push through it, but it never really worked. Anything I studied past that limit never really sunk in, and then I was just exhausted the next day. Maybe you’ve felt like you’ve hit your limit when you’re eating or feeling tipsy when drinking, but you have that next drink anyway.
You always have the choice to keep on keeping on and push on through that limit, but know that there will be a consequence, such as getting over- activated in your nervous system, or getting a bellyache, or being drunk and then having a hangover the next day.
There is always a consequence for pushing through a limit.
The work here is to learn to recognize your internal limits and to pay attention to them. Knowing your limits can often be an important first step in setting a boundary and taking care of yourself. This is deep embodied self- care, embodied meaning you feel it, you feel it in your body, not just think it in your head, but rather feel into your intuition, your knowing, your nervous system, your cells, your one perfect human body.
Living in radical self-love and living an intentional life in which you’re paying attention to yourself and your internal signals, respecting them, honoring them, and acting on them is such a beautiful way to show up for yourself, and this is the bedrock on which lasting sustainable self-care is built.
To situate the concept of limits within the holiday setting, some examples of limits could be around gossip.
My coaching client, Sarah, was sharing with me that her in-laws love to gossip. They often try to bring her in, to get her to complain or to criticize others with them, which she doesn’t want to do.
So for years, she used to just sit there and feel really uncomfortable. But Sarah didn’t want to be impolite or to upset anyone or to have anyone get mad at her.
Meanwhile, she was getting upset, she was getting mad at her and she wasn’t being nice to herself in this situation.
She had hit an internal limit that, “I’ve had enough of this, thank you very much,” moment and she didn’t know what to do next.
We did some breathing to help her center and calm herself, reconnect with her body through a body scan meditation, and then we did our thought work, recognizing, as always, the societal context and her nervous system’s activation.
Sarah decided that she wanted to practice the thought, “Gossiping isn’t aligned with my values and I can excuse myself if I want to.” She felt calm and in control when she had that thought. She felt in her body, not subject to her body’s cries for her to pay attention to the crossing of this limit.
Along with some slow deep breathing and the practice of these new thoughts ahead of time, in the moment, Sarah was able to take the action of simply and directly saying, “I’m going to bed y’all, sweet dreams,” when the conversation turned to gossip. The result of that action was that Sarah would calmly leave the table, taking good care of herself, showing herself and her in-laws such deep love by not judging them, which she used to do.
That’s the irony, right? She was judging them for being judgmental of others. Then she’d feel anxious and tense and would end up feeling like she betrayed herself, or she would leave the room in a huff, resulting in even more discomfort all around.
One of the things that helps me and my life coaching clients so much is to think about scenarios ahead of time and to plan for them, knowing what we know from past experience.
Another example would be if a parent or someone you love is an alcoholic or tends to drink to excess, you can know, going into that holiday situation or any other situation that when that person has the third drink, that’s your cue to leave the room. That’s your internal limit.
And sure, you can do the thought work to stay if you want to stay around someone who’s intoxicated. If it isn’t bothering you at all, right on.
Or, if it is a concern in your life, you can simply recognize your own internal limit and decide that it’s time for you to leave a situation.
The thought work comes in for me to get to a place where I’m leaving in an emotionally clean, clear way, where I’m not leaving in anger, which is what I always used to do. Instead, doing my thought work both in advance and in the moment helps me get to a place where I’m leaving as an emotional adult, not out of emotional childhood knowing that, in this example, the person who drank to excess and who was intoxicated, their drinking didn’t make me feel anything, my thoughts about it did.
So I can choose to release judgment or frustration to put down my expectation stories for how other people should behave to release the story, “Parents shouldn’t get drunk on holiday,” and I get to do all of that for my own sake because I can’t change anyone else’s thinking, anyone else’s drinking, anyone else’s gossiping.
The only person I can affect in that moment is me. So I can choose the thought, “He’s intoxicated and I don’t want to be around that right now,” Without all the extra suffering, the recriminations, the judgment.
I can recognize my own limits, can get clear on my motivation, intention, and story. I can just take myself to bed.
This isn’t to say you won’t have feelings in that process of just taking yourself to bed. Of course, you’ll have feelings. To have feelings is human and perfectly normal and a wonderful reminder that you’re a complex mammal who’s alive.
I just want to encourage you to act from a place of taking care of yourself versus a place of trying to manipulate anyone or to try to make someone feel or think something. I want you to end the conversation, to go to another room, to leave the party when you want to do so because you want to, and to do so peacefully.
Go wash the dishes. Take the dog for a walk. Take a break. Excuse yourself to the bathroom. Make a phone call. Listen to your body saying, “My darling, I’ve hit my limit with this.” And that’s okay.
Do so before you react so that, instead, you can respond with self-love and you can make a choice that reflects that decision to take loving care of yourself honoring your internal limits.
The key to this all is being your own watcher and having that internal awareness. The central organizing tenet of everything I teach is how to live an intentional life, one where you are not subject to your brain’s habitual thinking, but rather are managing your own mind, not living at the whim of your lizard brain.
That takes practice and work, and it takes mindfulness, self- reflection, and self-love. The beauty of these practices is that by doing them, by checking in and attending to the think-feel-act cycle within you, you build more mindfulness and more self-love. Self-love begets self-love.
It also takes consciousness around cultural, familial, class, social conditioning and a recognition that many of us, particularly at the intersection of marginalized identities and those of us socialized as women are taught to prioritize or privilege politeness versus speaking our truths. We are taught not to risk upsetting someone by saying what we really feel, even if we want to change the conversation, speak up if something bothers us, or simply leave the table.
Listen, I get it. If you’re like, “Okay, Vic, wow I am so not ready yet to set boundaries, like to tell my mother-in-law I’m not doing X, Y, Z, or if my father-in-law does this then I’m going to walk out of the room, wow, no I’m not there yet,” that’s totally cool. That’s fine.
You can spend this holiday season doing the vital work of learning your limits, of getting in touch with your body.
As things come up, pay attention. Learn to sit with yourself. Know that it’s going to be mildly to ridiculously uncomfortable and that’s okay. We can do hard things.
But this is your homework, my darling, this is the first step; awareness. And then, you know it, acceptance, and then action. So jumping to that A-line, the action of setting these boundaries, speaking to your limits, it may be well beyond where you are right now, and that’s great.
Listen, if you’ve never run before, please, don’t try to run a marathon. Start where you’re at. Go for a little tiny walk and feel what it’s like to feel your body walking down the street or walking through the park. It’s totally beautiful to begin and end with raising your awareness about what your limits feel like in your body.
And know that that’s your work right now. That’s great. You’re not failing at setting boundaries. That’s just where you’re at. And this is what living a conscious, aware, checked in life means. You can’t change what you can’t see.
In conclusion, I want to encourage you to listen to your body and your limits, recognizing what you think and feel so you can move on from there.
Be curious, loving and open to feeling all your feels, even when they’re challenging, and perhaps especially when they’re challenging. Recognize the signs and signals in your body that tell you you’ve had enough of whatever the situation is, that you’re done, that you don’t want to spend time with someone who’s gossiping, intoxicated, being hateful, whatever it may be so you can take steps to care for yourself rather than trying to change the other person.
Recognize what all of this feels like in your body and recognize when you’re reacting, when you’re going to that anger, that irritability, that resentfulness from an old pattern, an old way of being in the world, when you’re not listening to your body’s signals that you are approaching or have superseded your internal limits.
Because if you’re anything like me, that was the switch that would flip. I was fine, I was fine, I was fine, and I’d push through that limit, and then all of that ugliness came to bear, the anger, the meanness, being short with the people I loved, and that’s just not a way I want to live anymore, so I do my thought work, I do my breathwork, I check in with my human body. I value the somatic understanding of my lived experience and I check in with myself.
I check in around my limits all day long.
And I want to encourage you to do the same. The more in touch you are with your own limits, the sooner you’ll know when it’s time for thought work, for breathwork, for meditation, to excuse yourself from a situation or to set a firm but loving boundary, and the less of a chance that it will be you throwing mashed potatoes at someone this holiday season.
It’s been a real game-changer in my life to get in touch with my limits, to know them, to honor them, to speak them, to really take care of myself in this way, and it really is such a vital part of understanding that you need to set a boundary, feeling your own limit.