Seeing family is one of the great joys of the holiday season, but for many of us, it can mean having to face certain people or situations that make us uncomfortable.
Maybe we anticipate and imagine facing these people or situations and experience discomfort before they even appear. This can detract from the joy of family get-togethers or even cause us to miss out on these occasions because we dread the discomfort so much.
The mature way to handle these situations is to communicate our boundaries or limits to the people who are causing our discomfort. In my experience, when people are willing to be honest, clear, and kind, they will normally receive positive responses from other people and feel more free and empowered to be themselves.
Why It’s Hard to Set Boundaries
Many of us have a hard time saying no or telling other people when their behavior makes us uncomfortable. Often, this is due to our fear of confrontation or because we are worried the other person will feel uncomfortable or be disappointed in us. However, not saying anything is failing to be fully honest with ourselves and the other person. They will sense the discomfort or disconnect, but they won’t have a chance to correct their behavior because they won’t know what’s wrong.
Another reason for failing to communicate our discomfort to other people is that we tell ourselves that we are being too selfish. Shouldn’t we be able to sacrifice and be tolerant of others even if it makes us uncomfortable? Sacrifice can indeed be a virtue, but it is helpful to consider why you aren’t being forthright with the person.
Is the person’s behavior inappropriate, but they keep doing it because no one will tell them or sanction them for it? Is it only you who are made uncomfortable, or might this person’s behavior be alienating other people in their lives? In this case, you may be helping the other person to correct themselves if you tell them about it.
You also need to ask yourself: Are you afraid that the person who is making you uncomfortable will be angry or reject you, or are you worried about feeling embarrassed? Are you saying negative things to other people about this person but not to them? These fears may be showing up in multiple relationships in your life, and you might want to focus on being more open, direct, and honest with people.
So how do you communicate boundaries, set limits, and say no to people when you don’t feel comfortable? First, you need a clear description of what exactly the person does or says that makes you uncomfortable.
Even when a particular person seems to do a lot of things to irritate you, you can usually break it down into a few categories. It helps to talk it over with someone you trust, to have them help you define exactly what the source of your discomfort is.
One key thing to keep in mind is to tell the other person how you feel or what your reaction is to their behavior, rather than telling them that they are wrong for the way the act. The latter will bring up defensiveness and entrenchment while the former is more likely to result in sympathy and understanding. Work on this until you can describe it in one or two sentences. Figure out how to say it clearly and compassionately.
If the Behavior Continues
Next, you need to figure out what you will do if the person decides to continue their behavior. Sometimes a person will stop a behavior that bothers you when you point it out, but often they won’t if you don’t show them that you are serious.
Find something that you can and definitely will follow through on if you need to. Be creative and don’t back yourself into a corner. Instead of saying, “I will never come to your house if you do X.” Say, “I’ll never be able to feel comfortable in your home if you do X.” This tells the other person that you are serious while leaving your options open about exactly what you will do about it.
Finally, think about an appropriate time to let the person know about your boundary. If you aren’t sure if you want to be around the other person at all, it might make sense to tell them before you are faced with the situation and to find out what their response is because their response might change your plans. You can do this verbally or in writing.
Or plan for what you are going to say if a situation or opportunity presents itself. Once you feel confident that you can stand up for yourself if you need to, you will feel prepared and less worried about it.
Do you have anyone in your life who you have been avoiding setting boundaries with or saying no to? This situation can occur with family, friends, or colleagues. See if you can transform some of your more difficult relationships by saying no and setting clear boundaries. If you can be honest, direct, and kind at the same time, I think you will be positively surprised at the results you get and the confidence it gives you.
Michael Courter is a therapist and counselor who believes in the power of personal growth, repairing relationships, and following your dreams. His website is CourterCounsel.com
Do you have questions about relationships or personal growth that you would like Michael to address? Send them to mc@CourterCounsel.com