A new way to think of boundaries

Let’s consider the dance

Photo by Ardian Lumi on Unsplash

This article is cross-posted from my weekly newsletter, The Sunday Soother, a newsletter about clarity, intention, and useful tips for creating more meaning in your life that goes out every Sunday morning. Subscribe here. I am also a coach who works with sensitive people so they can stop second-guessing, make decisions confidently and live the life they’ve always dreamed of. You can learn more about working with me here.

Cue the Bowie: Let’s dance.

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Happy Sunday, Soothers. Holiday time is here, and you know what that means… it’s time for all of us to be horribly triggered by our families! It’s time for US to horribly trigger our families! You get a trigger, and you get a trigger, and you get a trigger!

My audience, as sensitive, thoughtful people, who struggle with people-pleasing, and who were sensitive children, often struggle with boundaries, resentment, and sometimes pretty complicated family dynamics, all of which can be on display ten-fold during the holiday season.

The way I see folks often then try to deal with the triggers or boundary-crossing by family members is by focusing on trying to control the situation and its participants: getting people to stop saying things, stop doing things, stop acting certain ways, etc.

I write a lot about control and hopefully you know my opinion on it by now: I totally understand the impulse, it’s a natural one, I still succumb to it frequently myself, and…

It doesn’t work.

So what to do when it comes to boundaries, triggers, resentment and family as we go through the rest of the holiday season?

This is something I offered up to my Instagram audience recently:

A few things I’ll offer around boundaries and the holidays…. 1. You’re not going to do it perfectly, see if you can detach from black or white thinking around this. I’ve gotten some questions like “How can I fully forgive this person?” Or “How can I state boundaries and feel authentic” and “How do I get my family member to understand where I am coming from” etc. Realize you probably won’t. It will feel awkward, weird, uncomfortable, you may still be angry, resentful, guilty. The idea is just to do it bit by bit. Be with the discomfort. Make tiny boundaries instead of huge ones. Practice, fail, be willing to practice again.

For this upcoming holiday season, what is one boundary or way of being you would like to practice? Just pick one, and write scripts, practice it ahead of time, soothe your nervous system, tell your inner child it’s safe, and do the most tolerable step around the boundary. It may feel tiny, and the tiniest steps are the most important ones.

Second, think of family dynamics and boundaries and resentment like this: A dance pattern between you and one or more people. What is the “dance”? Does your mom say something passive-aggressive, your sister snaps at her, you rush in to smooth things over? Is the “dance” you drink one too many glasses of wine, say something rude to your sister in law, your mom shuts down? Is the “dance” that somebody brings up politics and you begin arguing trying to convince them to see your side? Really think about this. Name the steps of the dance.

Then know: you do not have to “get” the other person to do anything. In fact, you cannot. It is futile not to mention incredibly exhausting and frustrating to try to change another’s behavior.

Also, it’s not, like… good. Those people are entitled to their behaviors, their choices, their acts, their opinions. They are humans. You are not their puppet master.

But know this: if you are all in this “dance” together, all you have to do is 1. Stop dancing 2. Do a different dance step. And by default, because YOU chose differently, you acted differently, you said something differently, their dance WILL have to change. If one person in the dance changes the pattern, it affects every single dancer. Make sense?

Let’s ground this with a hypothetical example.

Let’s say Sam gets triggered by their mother’s inevitable questioning about their romantic status. This exasperates Sam so much and they’ve tried everything: Telling their mom to not ask about it. Blowing up at their mom when she asks. The “dance” they’re in tends to look like this:

Sam’s first dance move: spends hours or days ahead of the event ruminating, fearing, their mom asking them about their romantic status. Their nervous system is getting jacked up pre-anticipating this, priming themselves to be in fight state.

Right on cue, about two hours into the event, Sam’s mom makes the dreaded inquiry and her move in the dance pattern: “So, sweetheart, are you dating anybody these days?”

Sam responds right back with their next step in the dance: either a sullen shutdown, a passive aggressive response, or a blow up accusation of anger.

Mom responds right back with her next step: Withdrawn hurt and blame/guilt, saying she just wants to feel closer to her child.

Sam completes the dance by withdrawing the rest of the night, furiously texting their friends how awful it is, blowing their mom off when saying goodbye, and the pattern is complete.

Strangely enough, the reality is that both Sam and their mom are getting something out of this dance. They may be living out unconscious but familiar and therefore comforting patterns of engagement from upbringing. They may get the benefit of avoiding emotional vulnerability with each other. They may be doing it as a distraction from something more painful going on in each or both of their lives, or in another family member’s life.

So, Sam, if they want to break the dance, simply has to choose a new step, perhaps a neutral but compassionate response that they then back up with calm action (leaving the convo physically, gently changing the subject, etc, something that has a different emotional tenor than their original and old step). If they respond in a different way, their mom has no choice but to also eventually respond in a different way (though, probably after multiple attempts to draw Sam back into the familiar dance, including possible guilting or shaming when Sam stays strong and refuses to enter the old dance).

Make sense? If it does, here’s what I offer you this season:

  • What is your most feared/annoying/painful trigger that happens at this time of year?
  • Who is your dance partner(s) in it? (Just like in dancing, you can be dancing with one person, or multiple)
  • See if you can document 5–10 steps of the dance, starting with your own participation in it. “First I AA, then they B, then I C, then this other person does D…”
  • Name the emotional tenor of your steps in the dance. Is the emotion anger, sullen, passive aggressive, critical, sad, withdrawing… whatever? (I find my inner teen comes out a LOT with family stuff, so sort of mean and sullen)
  • What is a new emotional tenor you would like to choose to bring to your new dance step? Neutral? Kind? Compassionate? Vulnerable? Powerful?
  • Write out what that would look like in the dance
  • Anticipate many efforts to draw you back into the old dance, with guilt and shame or passive aggressiveness. Make plans for how to stand firm!
  • Rinse and repeat as necessary

Finally, remember the famous saying from Ram Dass, the spiritual teacher: “If you think you are enlightened, go and spend a week with your family.”

Getting triggered by our families is normal; and even though it can be painful, we do have the power to respond rather than react.

Wishing you courage, compassion and a new boundaries dance going forward into the end of 2021!

Teaching awakening + healing through vulnerability + self-compassion. Finding hope in a messy world. Author of the Sunday Soother. http://catherinedandrews.com