Photo courtesy of Nadia Nima
I chatted with Rhonda Richards-Smith, a Los Angeles-based licensed psychotherapist and mental wellness expert, about setting boundaries for family gatherings ahead of the holidays. We all have that one family member who speaks out of turn while everyone and their mama is watching. It wasn’t until Rhonda became a mother and a wife when conversations about boundaries started happening among her family, because for many of us, boundaries is a foreign topic. For advice and expectations, I asked Rhonda about productive boundary-setting with those closest to you and staying true to them despite discomfort and confusion.
In your content, you highlight boundaries that we should consider before spending quality time with our families and friends. What are your top five?
- Ask for a guest list.
- Do the prep work.
- Set a time limit for your stay.
- Stay in a hotel or with someone you trust if you’re traveling from out of town.
- Don’t go at all.
What is prep work and how do we apply it in the moment?
Prep work is really important. You never want to walk into a room with high expectations. For example, thinking the family has transformed or that people are different from the last time. You want to make sure that you have a plan when someone says or does something inappropriate. Whether it’s making sure that you’re well-rested before you get there or that you’ve had something to eat, some of the basic, practical needs will help you better respond to the unexpected. If someone says something to you the wrong way and you’re hungry or tired, your response may be more severe versus if you’re fed and rested.
The plan may be different if someone in your family acts inappropriately towards you or your partner or your child or someone else in your camp. So it’s really important to know who’s going to respond and how they’re going to respond so no one is caught off guard.
What personal expectations and boundaries can we put in place to help us manage our stress and anxiety if we decide to attend the festivities?
The first step is to be realistic. It’s nice, during holidays or on birthdays, to have this fantasy of how we want things to go. But unfortunately, we have to let go of the fantasy. Ask yourself what’s more likely to happen based on the historical information that you have? If you have a particular relative that’s super nosy and asks a lot of inappropriate questions, chances are, if you encounter them again, you’re going to encounter the same behavior.
How do you handle family being disrespectful to your guest, especially if it’s a romantic partner?
When it comes to family dynamics, it’s the insider’s responsibility to set boundaries for their partner. It’s tough when your partner is trying to assert certain boundaries. When the outsider tries to set limits or boundaries within a family that they’re not a part of, the insider gets stuck in the middle. They don’t quite know what to do or what to say. They don’t want to offend anyone. They’re trying to play middle-of-the-road. But when it comes to relationships, especially if you’re in a romantic partnership, the relationship has to be the priority. And that’s probably most uncomfortable.
As children become adults, it gets a little sticky. You have to be clear about what’s acceptable and what’s not. When we want to change things, especially if you’re a child talking to your parents, it can be problematic because we’re not used to that in our communities. Today is different. Whenever we’re setting boundaries, not everyone’s going to like it.
Ideally, you want to address family matters away from your partner. Family tends to get defensive when you confront them in front of your partner. Pull them to the side and say, ‘Hey, I know this is typically what uncle such and such does, or I know you have a lot of questions, but I’d appreciate it if you bring those questions directly to me. We can talk one-on-one. I don’t want to have those kind of conversations during the holidays or in larger groups or in front of my partner.’ It’s as simple as that.
If I decide to not go, the first thing that comes to mind is guilt. How do we deal with this?
As many conversations as we can have about boundaries is key. You have to accept that when you set a boundary and someone doesn’t like it or has a negative reaction, it’s less about you and more about them. It will not feel that way in the moment, but oftentimes, the reality is, they’re confused. It can make people question their history and why they weren’t able to set boundaries. And they may feel frustrated and angry with you because you were able to do something that they haven’t.
It’s hard to disrupt and change patterns within families. It’s like steering a cruise ship. Some of this work is very difficult, and among many families, you will be the first. So it’s going to be uncomfortable. But, my hope and my goal is that the work we’re doing today will make life better for future generations. We have to be the trailblazers for our family members.
Many of us have experienced sexual abuse within our family systems. What if we don’t want to attend because we don’t want to share space with our abuser and aren’t ready to share the details of our experience?
That’s one of the main reasons I wanted to do the article. Many folks don’t realize that it can feel like torture, being in the room with your perpetrator, year after year, for Christmas, for Thanksgiving, whatever the celebration. There’s nothing wrong with wanting a safe space to celebrate. You deserve that. Sometimes, we’re not in a position to fully disclose the details. Either we aren’t ready or weren’t believed when we did disclose.
There’s also nothing wrong with skipping the event altogether. So much of Black culture is steeped in rich tradition. So again, when you’re setting boundaries and making changes, your family may take it very personal because we preserve our culture through tradition. However, we can create traditions and memories that are healthier. Maybe we take similar themes and put a twist on them, or we do things in smaller groups. I always encourage people to have these discussions with family members, especially with mothers who like to rule the roost and control what’s happening. So start conversations about newer traditions early.
And what might that look like? Don’t just bring it up. Have good, solid ideas about different ways to incorporate those ideas. Maybe there are activities that you do with your partner or friends that you can enjoy with family members or your parents. You could celebrate a little earlier or a little later, on New Year’s instead of Christmas. There are a lot of different ways we can maintain the relationships that mean the most to us without putting ourselves in situations with people that we don’t align with or want to have any contact with.
Your health and well-being should be top priority. That has to take front seat over someone getting their feelings hurt or not understanding. We want you to be healthy and happy and you have to do what you have to do to maintain that.