Do This No. 6: Festive Holiday Boundary-Setting

by Simone Eastman


Where have I been? Getting divorced and thus ripping through TV shows on Netflix (❤ u, Veronica Mars) while imagining myself getting so fat eating chocolate pudding cups that I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed and the foils would stick to my naked body. So, covered in existential pudding foils. As it were. I KNOW YOU KNOW WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT. Did you miss me??

Are you planning a Winter Solstice journey to your ancestral home (and/or your parents’ condo in Florida and/or your main squeeze’s parents’ house), and you are trembling at the thought of how you might handle the horrible, horrible things that people will say to you in the guise of being your Loved Ones who Care About You? I am here to help. By which I mean, when I went to visit my grandma after Thanksgiving she started telling me how horrible my skin looked within two hours of my getting there and, after breakfast at Friendly’s the next day, dragged me bodily to the Clinique counter to be humiliated by a pseudo-medical pseudo-professional with flawless middle-age skin who sold me five different acne-concealing products. Chill, right? So I have obviously thought a lot about how to handle these things. So. Herewith, a Holiday Guide to Setting Boundaries!

1. You do not have to accept unkind treatment from anyone, whether or not they gave birth to you and/or helped you pay for college and/or __________________.

This is so important! And so true! You don’t have to listen to bullshit about your skin or your weight or your sexuality or your job or your marriage or your reproductive status or your tattoos or your hair or your clothes or ANYTHING ELSE. YOU DON’T!!!!1! I know you’re probably thinking, “Yeahhhh, girl, but you don’t UNDERSTAND my special CIRCUMSTANCES, because if I don’t _____________, then my ____________ might not ______________ anymore!” And that might be true, but you need to understand that you really do have a choice here, even if the consequences of your choices seem difficult or impossible to accept. You don’t have to let anyone shit on you, verbally or otherwise (unless it’s consensual), as long as you’re willing to accept the consequences that come with setting a firm boundary. So yes, maybe you feel like you’re not in a position to challenge Uncle Harry’s uninvited opinions on the wisdom of pursuing a PhD in the humanities. And that’s fine. But if you see it as a choice you’re making, you’re way less likely to spend the holidays feeling like a victim. Or you can go into the Boxing Day festivities with a plan in mind for taking care of yourself and your inevitably hurt feelings.

2. You won’t ruin anyone’s holiday. And you don’t have to suffer in order to make sure everyone has a good Christmas. Everyone will survive if they are uncomfortable for a few minutes. You deserve to enjoy the time you spend with your family, as ridiculous a proposition as that may seem. You do not automatically ruin Christmas dinner or make someone cry by asserting yourself. Asking for what you need is not an imposition, and you aren’t responsible for anyone else’s reaction. Your goal is to gently but firmly set a boundary with whoever it is on whatever subject, and you can do this by not raising your voice, appearing calm no matter what happens, being kind, and just letting the inevitable awkward moment pass as gracefully as possible. (You probably shouldn’t get tanked if you’re going to try this. So maybe get tanked afterward?)

There are a couple of ways to do this:

a) “I’m just fine!”: This is where you just tell someone that you think you’re fine the way you are. You just deliver this line every time someone starts to ask you whether you’ve gained weight. “You know,” you say gently but cheerfully, “I think I’m just fine the way I am!” or “I’m happy with myself as I am!” or “I really like myself and the way I look!” That may or may not be true, but they don’t need to know that. If you’re with one of those people who just keeps bringing up a sore subject even after you’ve asked them not to, just keep repeating this, without escalating or raising your voice, until they let it go.

b) “I’m not going to talk about this.”: This is where you tell someone that you don’t want to, and are not going to, talk about whatever it is that they’re bringing up. You can take someone aside to do this or you can quietly get their attention when it’s happening. Here is something that happened to me at a holiday dinner, at a table of 10 people, mostly strangers:

One of the hosts started making jokes about how prisoners make wine out of fruit cups they set aside and ferment in their cells. (Uh.) This invited further jokes from other guests about various imagined foibles of prison life. As this went on, I started clutching my ladyfriend’s hand hard enough to leave little nail marks, and I was all set to grin and bear it, but then I realized that I would have just gotten more and more upset and left the very nice dinner party flipping my SHIT. So I leaned over, put on a super-apologetic face, and said, “Excuse me, Matt? Matt?” [Matt looks at me] “I know you had NO way of knowing this, but my brother is going to prison next month and hearing jokes about it is really hard for me. Can we change the subject?” and then leaned back to my place and went back to my delicious rustic plum tart. Yes, everyone was embarrassed for about 30 seconds, but I just smiled pleasantly and turned to involve myself in another conversation and everyone had moved on.

So how do you use this? If your brother-in-law asks you in front of everyone what REALLY happened when you got fired in June, you say, firmly but kindly, “You know what? I am really enjoying being here with everyone and I really don’t want or need to discuss this today. I’d really appreciate it if we could talk about something else.” Or if your mom harangues you about your clothing (my mom had a bizarre idea that tank tops made me look “like a whore”?), you can talk to her before your visit or privately when you arrive and just tell her, “Ma, I really don’t want to talk about my clothes with you while I’m here, okay? I know you don’t like how I dress, but I really just want to have a fun Hanukkah visit with you.” You might follow up with, “This isn’t a topic for discussion.” Or “I make my own choices about this.” Or “I’ll let you know if I want to talk about it.”

The tricky part is that…

3. You might have to be ready to back up your words with action. Sometimes people don’t respect the boundaries that you set.

You can let people know that you won’t or can’t stay if they can’t respect you. Tell your parents you’re staying in a hotel to avoid all of this altogether. Or let your grandma know that if she keeps referring to your partner by the wrong name or pronoun, you’ll both need to leave.

Or you might have to be ready to gracefully excuse yourself, either taking a break from the action or leaving altogether. You don’t have to make this a scene, either. Instead of panicking in the moment and slamming out of the house, walk through a possible escape route. Before you go wherever it is you’re going, figure out how you can leave if you need to. Can you drive your own car, rent a car, or make sure you have a bus or train schedule and some cash with you? Can someone come pick you up? Is there a room you can excuse yourself to where you can cry/read a book/troll Hairpin comments for comrades in arms? Do you have a friend you can go get a drink with or stay with? Are you traveling with someone who will need to leave with you? Talk to your boyfriend/girlfriend/best friend/husband/wife/partner/college roommate or whoever you’re going to be attending soirees with about what you want to do, and what they want to do, if you need to excuse yourselves.

And then do it. Leave after the meal’s over, if you can. Tell everyone goodbye kindly and warmly, as you would if you were leaving under ordinary circumstances. And then peace out, remembering that…

4. How people react is up to them. It’s not your fault or your responsibility. There is nothing wrong with not wanting to be criticized or picked apart or shamed. There is nothing wrong with asking for respect. You’re responsible for your own behavior, not theirs. Period. Exclamation point!

5. If you want, you can follow up later with a note or a phone call where you let your Cousin Sadie know that you’re so sorry that you had to leave early, but that you were feeling uncomfortable and unhappy. You love her and enjoy her company, but you can’t have a good time with her when she keeps asking you whether you’re infertile. Happy New Year, etc.

And for confidence, 6. Do a bold lip.

Merry Happy, everyone, and just remember: it’s all fodder for the multi-volume memoir.

Previously: Gifts That Keep on Giving.

Simone Eastman is a cat lady.