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How do I break it to my mother-in-law that we’re not coming to Christmas dinner? 😬😬😬

Families Mental Health Socializing Travel

A: Here’s the bottom line: you are not in control of other people’s thoughts, feelings, or actions.

You can only control your own thoughts, feelings, and actions. And you do not have to sacrifice your comfort to make someone else happy. Be firm, be brief, focus on your own decisions rather than hers, and don’t leave it open-ended: “We can’t come to Christmas dinner this year. I understand you’re disappointed, and so are we. This is the decision we’ve made. We’ll send something for you to enjoy without us!”

This post is for the people-pleasers. You know who you are. Disappointing someone else is the surest way to ruin your day. When you say no, you feel tremendous guilt. You worry about what people think of you. You have trouble asking for what you need. You’ve never sent a dish back at a restaurant. You will sacrifice your comfort for someone else’s comfort.

COVID sometimes requires us to push our limits as people-pleasers in order to keep ourselves and our families safe.

We’re going to review four helpful tips from an article by Dr. Ilene Strauss Cohen in Psychology Today to talk about how the idea of boundaries applies to saying “thanks but no thanks” to that family dinner, baby shower, costume party, or holiday pageant in the time of COVID.

🤔 Know what your boundaries are.

We each need to figure out what *we ourselves* are comfortable with in terms of COVID risks first, then figure out how our own boundaries guide our decisions to attend holiday gatherings (or any gatherings).

Dr. Cohen says, “many people-pleasers are confused about where their boundaries lie and what their own thoughts are about important issues.” So it’s important to get clear about what our boundaries actually are before we open the conversation.

Understanding risk in the pandemic is really complex. Even people who aren’t worried about pleasing others may be confused about it–it’s confusing! It may be helpful to write down what you see as the facts, risks, and problematic aspects of the dinner to give yourself a firm sense of where you stand. This will help you have confidence in your own decision and resist pushback, but it’s meant for you only–not to share with your mother-in-law. Don’t offer these details to defend your decision, because you don’t have to justify having boundaries.

Are you actually of two minds? Many of us are desperate for life to return to normal and want to pretend that it will, but know in our hearts that things will be different this holiday season. You may feel genuinely sad that you are missing Christmas dinner with family and be wishing that you could go safely. Understanding your internal conflict before you open up the conversation will help you stand your ground once a decision is made. It may help to make a plan for how you will celebrate Christmas within your own pandemic pod.

💬 Communicate clearly.

Once you are clear about what your boundaries really are and what your decision is, deliver the news about your decisions to your loved ones clearly, firmly, and without involving their decisions or their reactions. Write down what you will say and practice it.

Be brief and be firm. Don’t sound as if you’re still thinking about it, say maybe, or suggest that you will decide later. Say what your decision is and don’t leave it open for discussion. Focus on your end–the decision about what’s best for you–and leave out the details about what aspects of the situation are problematic in your view.

For example, you might say

😷 “I need you to wear a mask over your nose and mouth while you’re in our home.”

🎄 “We’ve decided we are not going to participate in the choir this Christmas. This is the best thing for our family.”

🎃 “We will not be at the Halloween parade.”

🍼 “I can’t come to the baby shower. I love you and I’m so sorry to miss it!”

🦃 “We can’t host Thanksgiving this year.”

🍾 Or simply: “Thank you for the invitation. I can’t come. I’ll send something for you to enjoy without me!”

Here’s a trick to avoid sounding defensive: substitute the word “and” for the word “but.” For example, instead of saying “You know how much I love our time together at Christmas but we can’t come this year,” say “You know how much I love our time together at Christmas, and we can’t come this year.”

Don’t get into the weeds about the reasons behind your decision. Telling your mother-in-law all the things that are wrong about her plan for Christmas dinner is sure to lead to defensiveness and anger, and the truth is, you can’t control her actions any more than she can control yours. You don’t need to defend or explain your position, she doesn’t need to defend or explain hers, and you don’t need to apologize for having boundaries.

😠 Remember it is okay if others aren’t happy with your decisions.

Our anxiety often comes from the expectations we have about what the other person will say, think, feel, or do. We compromise our values in order to avoid this anxiety and negative feelings.

So rather than judge in advance how it will go, we can be open-minded. Maybe it will be fine! Okay, probably not, but the point is to let go of the worry about what will be. We can apply mindfulness and focus on how we feel right now, rather than feeling horrible in advance based on imagined futures.

It may also be helpful to visualize how you will feel on Christmas day when you are not at the family dinner. This will ground you in your own feelings, rather than your mother-in-law’s.

You don’t have to manage other people’s emotions in order to be a good daughter-in-law/sister/friend/mother/human being. “Standing for your boundaries and values doesn’t make you a bad person, even if it upsets other people,” says Dr. Cohen.

People may pressure you to change your mind or challenge your boundaries. People may be unhappy. They may be angry. They may refuse to accept the boundaries you’ve set. That does not make you a bad person.

You don’t need to put yourself in a position you’re not comfortable with to make other people happy. You can even feel sorry or guilty that you’ve made other people upset without compromising your values to accommodate their preferences.

🚪 Make a plan to exit the conversation.

If you expect a conversation to be upsetting or you are just stressing about it, come up with a plan for what you will say if the conversation gets too emotionally intense.

You might simply say that you’d like to return to it later after everyone has cooled off.

“I understand that you’re really upset right now and I love you. Let’s stop here and talk again this weekend.”

“I recognize that you’re angry right now. I don’t want either of us to say anything we regret, so let’s end the conversation here for now.”

“I know you’re upset about this. I want you to know that I did not make this decision to upset you–I made this decision because it’s the right thing for me.”

“I’m sorry that we don’t agree. This feels bad to me too.”

“I understand that you’re angry. This is our decision.”

Or, one of our favorites, “I wish things were different this year too.”

Here’s a short video/cartoon we really like that describes boundaries from Tiktok user @domesticblisters. Warning: it includes an f-bomb.

#Socializing #Families #MentalHealth #Travel