Why You Should Set Boundaries with Family During the Holidays
The picturesque version of the holiday season often entails warmth, peace, and reconnection. In reality, however, holiday events can involve pangs of stress, accommodations of many people, and much production just to celebrate one day. For those overpowered by addiction, substances often are utilized to cope with the madness derived from celebrating the winter holidays. For those in recovery – especially in early recovery –re-entering these situations often brings about much fear and anxiety due to the predicament of how to survive these events sober and unscathed.
While at my extended family’s home one Christmas, my 25+ years sober aunt pulled me aside, overwhelmed by unresolved family conflict that arose prior to dinner. “Lindsay, this is why I used to drink. This still makes me want to drink.” She sighed and poured herself another glass of club soda. Fortunately my aunt did not relapse that Christmas, but it was then that I more deeply understood the risk embedded within these “festive” annual situations.
The most prevalent question that I am asked when educating ‘normie’ families on their loved ones’ addictions is, ‘do we need to make this holiday a dry event?’-Lindsay Kramer
The most prevalent question that I am asked when educating “normie” (i.e. people that can drink/use responsibly without encountering problems) families on their loved ones’ addictions is, “do we need to make this holiday a dry event?” My response is always a strong recommendation of yes. Such is not always taken too well, however. In those cases, the follow-up question is, “but, if this isn’t our problem, why do we all need to make changes?” Naturally, my response to these protests is typically much longer and increasingly more complicated. But what I also explain to these families is the importance of setting boundaries.
Setting boundaries comes from having a bottom line; the boundaries reinforce and support one’s determined stance. If your bottom line is that you don’t want to drink and/or use over the holidays, you will set boundaries as to ensure that you don’t drink or use, no matter what. If your bottom line is that you don’t want your loved one to drink and/or use over the holidays, you will do whatever is within your control as not to contribute to their drinking or using. The idea is very simple, but the application of setting (and enforcing) boundaries is not quite the parallel process.
Why is it Difficult for Families to Set Boundaries During the Holidays?
- The Difficulty of Change:First of all, change is uncomfortable. As humans, we operate under the phenomena of homeostasis, which is the internal process that maintains our overall stability and consistency despite adversarial external situations. We are always attempting to regulate back to normal, and change isn’t easy due to our default inclination toward normal.Normal equals comfortable. Even if we know that something is not healthy or acceptable, we still gravitate towards it because we are familiar with it.-Lindsay Kramer
Normal equals comfortable. Even if we know that something is not healthy or acceptable, we still gravitate towards it because we are familiar with it. When there is an attempt to change, resistance to this change follows in order to combat the discomfort. When we set new boundaries and have to follow them, this requires not only the endurance of initial discomfort, but also persistence in enforcing these boundaries until they become the new normal. Often, it’s much easier to take on an “I give up!” approach and couple it with a “we’ll try it again next year” aspiration, especially if the entire family decides that they no longer can tolerate the discomfort of change.
- Lack of Understanding About Addiction:Families and friends may have a difficult time understanding that addiction truly is a disease and is not just a matter of choice. Uncle Al may not understand why you no longer can indulge in a scotch with him while waiting on turkey dinner, and may incessantly push a glass of 12 Year on you until you give in. If he is used to your compliance on an annual basis but also doesn’t understand that one glass for you often leads to consuming the entire bottle, he may not understand the answer to his question of, “what’s one drink going to do?”As it can require much time for an addict/alcoholic to comprehend the all-or-nothing nature of their disease, loved ones that do not suffer from this problem may need that much more time to understand this concept. Patience and persistence are key factors to remember for these difficulties in subjective comprehension from your normie loved ones.
- The Ripple Effect:Maybe Uncle Al is experiencing his own struggle in keeping it down to one glass and feels less uneasy when he has a drinking buddy to reinforce his behavior.-Lindsay KramerAnother reason that families and friends may have a difficult time in setting their boundaries or adhering to yours is that your sobriety may trigger a [harbored] awareness about their own difficulties in managing their substance consumption. Maybe Uncle Al is experiencing his own struggle in keeping it down to one glass and feels less uneasy when he has a drinking buddy to reinforce his behavior.
If the tradition in one’s family or group of friends during the holidays is that everyone becomes intoxicated on Christmas Eve and this suddenly stops due to accommodating the recovering addict, such can create a wave of awareness about the tradition itself. For instance, how much does everyone really want to drink versus need to drink? If the tradition for some is difficult to give up, there may be an underlying reason as to why. Perhaps, your sobriety is now shining an unwanted spotlight on those with their own covert struggles that are fighting to retain this tradition due to shame and guilt over these problems. Again, change is uncomfortable, and some people may exude resistance due to their lack of readiness to deal with the discomfort your recovery is internally causing for them.
Why is it Important for the Recovering to Set Boundaries During the Holidays?
I always give my patients a tool for their bottom lines: If your family can’t set their boundaries, you still have to. If your family is demonstrating resistance to change, if they don’t understand your disease, and/or if they aren’t ready to reflect on their own problems, that doesn’t negate the work you have to do in your recovery. The beauty about the concept of change within a system is that all it takes is for one entity to maintain change, and the rest of the system will eventually accommodate that adjustment and such will create a new normal. Whether that looks like the rest of the family altering their traditions for you, or you deciding to go somewhere else for Christmas dinner, continuing to enforce this change will finally result in new traditions to which everyone will once again become accustomed.
Whether that looks like the rest of the family altering their traditions for you, or you deciding to go somewhere else for Christmas dinner, continuing to enforce this change will finally result in new traditions…-Lindsay Kramer
Back to the question asked by families in regard to dry holidays. What I initially tell families is that I understand the dilemma: their loved one’s disease is not their own. They didn’t cause the addiction and they aren’t in control of it. But I also indicate that like addiction, recovery is a family process; the family was likely involved in the addiction in one way or another, so why shouldn’t they be involved in the recovery? What’s more important: enjoying that glass of wine, or enjoying your spouse’s presence over the entire day without blackouts or passouts? (Families often sustain their protests when I make that comparison.)
Move forward in this process by identifying what everyone’s bottom lines are and determine if a plan can be set in compromise of these boundaries. For the recovering, if your family is intent on consuming alcohol responsibly and you still feel that such is a risk for you, communicate this to them and set another plan for yourself instead. This might look like planning on staying for a few hours and leaving when Uncle Al starts slurring his words so that you can go to a meeting directly following. Either way, any plan is exponentially better than no plan at all.
Ultimately, if these holiday traditions have been built over time, they will take time to alter. Again, the importance is persistence and patience. If recovery is your bottom line, set unshakable boundaries around your recovery. The process can get easier with every opportunity you have, and the discomfort from change will subside as well. Now, here’s to a healthy holiday season bringing new opportunities for change!
Related Reading: 6 Essential Tips for Your First Sober Holiday Season
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