So, here we are. If you are stateside, we are just hours away from kicking off the most wonderful time of the year... the Thanksgiving to New Year's timespan that is filled to overflowing with togetherness, love, goodness, merriment, joy, happiness and, well, if we are being real here, anxiety. Because while, in theory, we all love to get together with those we love, there is also this little underbelly of worry as we load the car with suitcases, brown paper packages and carefully-prepared casseroles. And the inner voice expressing that worry likes to ask these questions:
Is my cousin going to ask why I am still single?
Is my mom going to ask me if I've lost weight, gained it, thought about losing some, thought about gaining some or some other weight iteration nightmare?
Is my aunt going to say, "you would be so pretty if..."
In short, is someone, under the auspices of loving me, going to make me feel utterly unlovable with their judgments? And, more important, am I going to let them? Am I going to walk away from that dinner, stuffed from food that couldn't satisfy the hole that was opened with those words, and think, "I SHOULD HAVE SAID SOMETHING!" Am I going to feel betrayed not just by my loved ones but by me?
And, so, in the midst of all of your other preparations for the big day tomorrow and all the other big days that are to come in the next six weeks, I want you to add one more thing to your list of preparations. I want you to add planning to take care of you to that list.
Now, there are many ways that we can take care of ourselves and those are all important. But today, we are focusing on the one thing you must be able to do this holiday season to get through it with your soul safely intact if you have people in your life who like to take care of you by taking you apart.
You have to teach people how to treat you.
And you do that by setting boundaries. So sometime today, while the pumpkin bread is baking or the laundry is drying or you are wrapping presents or idling in traffic, I want you to turn your attention to taking care of you. I want you to think about what you might hear from your family members that might result in a wound for you if you aren't vigilant.
"Isn't it time to start dying those grays?"
"That baby is 5 years old; shouldn't you be rid of the baby fat?"
"Do you dress this way to go to work?"
And then, first and foremost, I want you to remember that those comments are never about you. If someone feels the need to comment on you about your looks, your station in life or anything, really, it is not about you. Those comments are a mirror into that person's life and the challenges he or she has with the issue they just mentioned. I promise.
But, next, I want you to take it a step further. The person who has his or her own wound often looks for a way to pass that wound on. Think about it. A wound like that is so hard to carry around, it is so bone-crushing. And, sometimes, if we can give it away for a moment, if we can just take the edge off of our own misery for a moment, well that feels a little like relief. It's only later, with counseling or deliberate insight and personal growth, that we can realize that it wasn't relief at all. It was a way to numb ourselves. We numb in so many ways, don't we? With food. With alcohol. With substances. By being snarky and bitchy and mean. We numb because we think the worst thing possible would be to face ourselves, to be vulnerable to be real. We think that realness, that admission of imperfection, is as bad and painful as it gets. But I promise you this: No one who has a healthy relationship with herself has ever looked at another person who stands real in the midst of her vulnerability and said "that looks weak." Look carefully. From where I am sitting, vulnerability, realness, truth? They all look a lot like courage. Until we give up the myth that both perfect and imperfect exist, we'll keep missing the real truth: there is no perfect, there is no imperfect, there is only glimmering, vulnerable, soul-refreshing realness and it's polar opposite. And the polar opposite is wounded and wounds others.
And those who wish to wound look for the most vulnerable target -- a target they know who will not see their barb for what it is, a desperate desire to pass it on for a moment and a target who will accept it. For your empathy and sympathy and politeness (oh, she won't make a scene!), you are being targeted.
But that doesn't have to be your role anymore.
Spend some time thinking about what you hear and then come up with two comebacks.
#1 The comeback that would most satisfy you if you could just say what you wanted to say which might look a little like this:
Your mom: "Honey, don't you think you would just be so much happier if you just lost 20 pounds?"
You: "Mom, don't you mean that you would be so much happier if I just lost 20 pounds?" or "I would actually be happier if you didn't always think my body was up for grabs."
#2 The comeback that you can really stomach giving -- one that will set a boundary, one that will teach the person how to treat you, but one that will not send you to the bathroom for the duration of the get-together because you are so nauseous over delivering it.
Your mom: "Honey, don't you think you would just be so much happier if you lost 20 pounds?"
You: "I actually don't think you have to lose weight in order to be happy," or "This isn't a productive conversation for us to have."
Sometimes, comeback #1 and comeback #2 are the same, but what I have found is that if you are a person who has spent your life receiving these barbs, it is very hard to go from receiving them and not saying a word to really strongly zinging the person the next time he or she says something. Moreover, a big zinger isn't the key difference maker. Just identifying the boundary for the person you are interacting with and letting he or she know it has been crossed and you won't be quiet anymore usually goes a very long way. Very rarely does it take more than just a handful of times of setting that boundary before the person leaves you alone and either chooses to deal with his or her own stuff or moves on to, unfortunately, another victim.
Boundary setting is hard, hard work. But it is important work. Not just because it teaches other people how to treat us, but because it also shows us that we can take care of ourselves. And when we begin to understand that, everything changes. Maybe that can be this year's holiday miracle.
Take care of you. Promise?