Your kids have been sick, money is tight, and you’ve determined that this holiday season, travel just isn’t in the cards. Or maybe you aren’t able to afford the gifts that are expected for all your cousins. Perhaps you’re emotionally drained and can’t rally to make it to that office party. Or you’ve heroically mustered the colossal courage to tell your in-laws to go easy on the gift-giving for the grandkids this year. Whatever the boundar(ies) you’ve set during this difficult season, you’ve finally done it – you’ve asserted yourself and prioritized your own wants and needs!
And now you feel terrible about it.
Guilt abounds during the holidays. In the therapy room, my clients routinely share their worries about disappointing or hurting others should they choose to set boundaries. Because the clients with whom I work generally have giant hearts and are very sensitive to the needs of those around them, they are often inclined to set their boundaries aside in order to avoid the hurt they believe their boundary-setting might cause. Sometimes, they choose not to set the boundary, opting instead to swallow their stress in order to avoid the very real discomfort that is Guilt.
Guys, Guilt is a very challenging Monster. (See: You’re Very Own Monster-In-A-Box)
Here’s the deal with Guilt: When Guilt pops up, it usually is trying to remind us that it wants us to be good, loving, giving, generous people. It desperately wants to avoid hurting the people that we love by disappointing them or making them think we don’t want to spend time with them. Guilt either doesn’t realize that our own boundaries are important for our health and well-being, or it discounts this fact because, to Guilt, the people we love and care about often come before ourselves. Guilt says, we should be able to push through this for the good of (insert anyone’s name here). Suck it up!
It’s a very well-intentioned Monster (as Monsters tend to be). It just goes about reminding us of who we want to be in a way that isn’t always helpful (as Monsters tend to do). How do we wrangle with this Monster? Well, we don’t. We take good care if it.
To take care of our Guilt, we first need to validate that the boundaries that we wish to set are coming from a valuable place within us. Often, it’s our gut that tells us when something feels wrong. When we hear that little tug inside our bellies (or our heads, or hearts, or wherever that tug is coming from) saying “not this year”, we can respect ourselves by giving the tug time to surface and share it’s concerns. Sometimes, when we give those concerns some attention, we realize that they are, in fact, very valid. An obvious example might be if we are anxious about visiting with a relative that is emotionally abusive. Another might be a reasonable concern about finances and gift-giving.
Whatever the nature of the concern, we often already have an awareness inside of us of the boundary that we’d like to set to address it, and we can take the time to hear that out, too. Then, mindfully, intentionally, and from that centered place inside of us, we can make the decision as to whether or not we wish to set the boundaries that are being asked of us, by that tug inside of ourselves (still with me?).
And then we can take care of Guilt. Here’s what that might look like:
“Oh hey, Guilt. Thank you for reminding me that I want to be a good human and not hurt anybody in my life. I appreciate that input, and I agree – I don’t want to do that, either! Now listen, you aren’t going to love this, but I’ve decided to set a boundary around gift-giving this year because I want to be responsible and take good care of my family’s finances. I realize that grandmom might really struggle with this boundary, and I’ll probably get some pushback from my sisters, too. That’ll be hard for you, but don’t worry. I’m competent and I can handle it in a way that is kind and respectful. Here’s how: I’ll tell grandmom about the boundary, that I love and appreciate her, and that the decision is coming from a place of reason for my family, not any animosity towards her. I’ll let my sisters know that I’m happy to contribute homemade gifts this year because I want to participate with the family, but also must honor myself and my situation. And, if anybody tries to poke at you, Guilt, I’ll let them know that I’ve made my decision, and that the boundary isn’t up for discussion”.
I know this practice isn’t easy. Taking good care of Guilt is capital-H Hard, and we might ultimately fail to help Guilt feel secure enough to set the boundary. And that’s okay, too. Even allowing for Guilt to get it’s needs met from time to time, when it feels very difficult to do otherwise, is an act of self-kindness. Baby steps, always.
Guilt can be a really difficult Monster to wrangle with, especially during the holiday season. My recommendation is always to stop the wrangling altogether. End the internal battle, and instead focus on what needs attending to within ourselves. We can choose self-care and remain good humans; we can prioritize our wants and needs and still show love and kindness to our people. And our Guilt will learn to trust us over time, when we take good care of it.