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The biggest, best gift I’ll receive this year is something I never anticipated. It’s not something that can be wrapped, or that I will find under the tree. It’s a personal gift. A “To me / From me,” as we say in our family.

It’s a gift I found by accident, while stumbling around in a fog of confusion and self-doubt. It appeared slowly, germinating more than a year ago when I finally quit drinking and started paying more attention to myself. The pandemic, as awful as it’s been, has only improved this gift. Strengthened it.

This incredible, amazing gift that I never knew I needed so badly is simply . . . boundaries. The ability to say no, to prioritize myself, to stand up for myself and recharge my batteries when I need to without feeling guilty or regretful.

I am a dedicated over-achiever, fixer and caretaker.

An overfunctioner. I crushed it, all the time. All of it. If I couldn’t do it well, I’d refocus and work harder until I got it right. I was so good at doing everything that I began to take over doing things for other people that they were perfectly capable of doing for themselves. The more I accomplished, the more competent I felt, and this competency gave me a false sense of safety.

I worked, and worked, and worked . . . until I couldn’t anymore. I crashed, spectacularly. The change began at the bottom of some innumerable glass of wine when I finally found the courage to look within, stop numbing, and rescue myself. It began when I realized the opportunity and the actual ability to come to my own rescue would pass soon, and if I didn’t do something, I’d be forever lost.

I put the wine down and chose myself.

It turned out to be a lot easier than I thought to quit drinking.  Because when you finally, truly choose yourself, you don’t ever want to do anything that will harm yourself. I haven’t looked back since. No regrets, no nostalgia. I don’t miss it at all.

The months since then have been difficult, for sure. It’s uncomfortable to finally look closely and honestly at yourself and make changes to long-established, familiar habits. The most fundamental change I’ve made is to draw firm lines around who I am and how I want to function going forward. Setting boundaries. Which—with competing expectations of friends, family, and a societal compulsion to “be merry” while enduring the shortest days of the year and a pressure to nail the most thoughtful gifts—can be hard this time of year.

The holidays, for the last several years, have been depleting for me rather than a source of enjoyment. As a kid I loved them; loved the close family time, decorating, baking and cooking and doing jigsaw puzzles in front of the fire. As an over functioning adult and parent I grew to dread them. I focused on my to-do list and got through them with false amiability covering simmering resentment for how stretched thin I allowed myself to become. (Hint: resentment is always a sign that you have failed to set a needed boundary. Always.)

If life is about anything, it’s about connection. Forming bonds with other humans not only brings us great joy, but it calms our nervous systems and improves our health, too. So we owe it to ourselves to set firm boundaries.

Boundaries, instead of being limiting, allow for true, authentic connection.

Boundaries show other people how to engage with you, how to treat you. They are not about cutting yourself off from people; instead, they are an invitation to others to connect with you more closely and on a deeper level. When you value yourself and take care of yourself first, you become infinitely more available for that deeper connection you crave. And with that connection, finally, comes joy.

What do boundaries look like? Some examples:

  • Cut back time spent on activities or people who deplete you.
  • Turn off your phone and don’t respond to calls or texts until you feel ready.
  • Figure out exactly how you want to spend your time, and set about making that happen.
  • Be firm with anyone who tries to wear you down or change your mind.
  • “No.”
  • “I’m not comfortable talking about ______. Please don’t ask me again.”
  • “I can’t see you Tuesday. But I have some time on Friday.”
  • “When I share something with you, I need you to keep it in confidence.”
  • “I appreciate your wanting to help, but I need you to listen without trying to fix it or offer me advice.”

 

The process of setting boundaries can feel scary and uncomfortable.

Some people will not like your boundaries and may challenge you, especially if they benefited from your having poor boundaries in the first place. Be prepared for this, and don’t take it personally. Remind yourself that you get to decide how you live your life; other people don’t get to decide that for you. Setting your personal boundaries is your responsibility; how other people react to your boundaries is theirs, and not within your control.

So give yourself a gift this season—invest in yourself. Spend some time thinking about what your values are, and what you want for yourself and this fresh new year. Think about how you usually spend your time, and whether your habits align with those values. Then take that information and act on it. Implementing firm, clear boundaries that align with your values will allow you to finally relax, be fully present to your loved ones, and enjoy the connections you’ve been missing.

Which, gratefully and at long last, is exactly what I plan to do.

Heather Shaff

Heather is a book designer based in Boston who, when she’s not writing or taking care of the fam, can be found racing her bike, enjoying nature, or just daydreaming.

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