"I used Christmas Covid fears to cancel the planned family festivities at my house with my parents and brother. Although I was in an area where three households could meet, I just didn't want the hassle of cooking for everyone, the usual arguments, my mother insisting on changing my table setting and taking over the turkey - or, to be frank, the cost. I lied that I was really anxious about infection, so it would be best to keep us all safe and that I wouldn’t see anyone at all. But I did invite my best friend over for champagne. She posted a silly picture of us and somehow it got back to my mum and dad. Now, my parents are not speaking to me because (according to my brother) I chose her over them. I am riddled with guilt for hurting them, but don’t regret my decision to cancel. How do I fix our relationship without backing down?" Anna.
I know this feeling only too well. My parents and I are super close and do many things together: board game nights, long walks with the dogs. But there are things that I used to do with them that I’ve weaned myself off as I’ve got older - going on holiday, attending all my birthday parties, picking out furniture for my house. At first, it felt like I was choosing between making them happy and making me happy. However, I grew to realise that the real grown-up choice I was facing was whether to set boundaries or not. If you have never told your parents that you don’t enjoy hosting Christmas, would they still want you to?
Boundaries are the best thing sliced bread, we set them in our social lives and our work lives, but we need to set them in our family lives too. When done considerately it can actually strengthen a family not rip it apart.
If we don’t know where our boundaries lie, we don’t know when to stop ourselves, or others, over-stepping. I find my boundaries show up in the form of a deep, angsty frustration. I had to my parents how uncomfortable it made me feel when they phoned first thing in the morning or popped in unannounced. I discovered, they too, wanted me to back off certain habits I’d had since childhood, like helping myself to food in their fridge without checking. As we get older, we often stick to our roles of kids and parents, when actually we are all adults.
How I like to set boundaries is by looking at the big picture – what’s the outcome I want to see. For instance; my family (I’m currently living with my parents) likes to do the Telegraph crossword together every Saturday. Even if we weren’t feeling up to it, we’d still do it because we didn’t want to let anyone down. Inevitably, it would be a catastrophe because we were all in foul moods and would snip at each other for the duration and would hate the experience. Whereas now, after I had suggested that we all check-in in the morning to see if we’re not unanimously up for it, and if not we’d just put it off for a day or two. If you can’t show up as your best self, don’t show up at all because no one will enjoy the situation. If you were really unhappy about cooking all that food and spending all that money, I bet you would have been a tetchy nightmare to be around.
Boundaries, they are the first step in taking control of our lives. Remember you always have choices
Here are your options
1. Baby Steps
Grovelingly apologise, in person, if allowed, and send flowers for bonus points. Explain you did it because the anxiety of the day and their making you feel like a child had become too much to bear. Tell them how you were feeling nervous about providing a top-notch day and how you didn’t think you could deliver financially or nutritionally. Say you are sorry for hurting their feelings but that you didn’t know how to convey how you felt, so you ran as fast as you could in the other direction.
If Christmas was just the tip of the iceberg in your family dynamics, prepare a list of things that you would like to change when it comes to family boundaries. Whether it’s the Christmas traditions or having to call your mum every evening to check in, or her barging in when you are in the bath. Be detailed, then ask to have a family Zoom meeting. Simply say “I would like to set some boundaries around the following things” and crucially tell them why it’s important for you. You might be surprised by the response. Ask if they have any boundaries they would like to set too. Remember, you can set these boundaries, but you cannot control whether they abide by them. Be clear with what you want and what will happen if the boundary is crossed, and then stand by that.
3. Full Nuclear
Tell them to lump it. They can’t control you anymore, it was your decision, and if they don’t like it, tough! It’s your house, it’s your Christmas and your rules. You are not a baby anymore. Of course, this will cause a little turbulence in the family. But the good thing is, you will never have to deal with any of them at Christmas again, possibly even, birthdays, weddings, and bar mitzvahs too. I’m not saying I advise this option, but if you don’t address the issue, this could well be the impression you’re giving off. Think about this darling, they are your family, and you clearly love them, so try to keep everyone’s feelings in mind when you make your decision. Ask yourself, the celebrations without your family, really the kind of celebrations you want?
Got a shame you want to change? Message Hattie at email@example.com . Hattie is a confidence coach and NLP Master Practitioner. She reads all your emails but cannot reply individually. Names will be withheld if requested and letters may be edited. For an in-depth consultation find her at hattiesloggett.com
Amelia C's name has been changed.