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The holidays are upon us, which often means more time with family, and sometimes more drama, tension, and fighting. If the thought of spending time with family over the holidays is anxiety-provoking for you, it may be time to look at your boundaries.

Personal boundaries are one of the most important ways to support your mental health. Setting boundaries in a relationship helps you understand where you end and the other person begins. Although the term “boundary” implies restriction, setting boundaries can actually open us up to much more freedom and joy.

Many of us are afraid to set boundaries because we think it might lead to even more pain and tension or, worse, the loss of an important relationship. However, when approached the right way, boundaries can be an enormous benefit and lead to healthier relationships.

Here are five simple steps to setting boundaries with loved ones:

  1. Tune into your body. Notice how you physically react to a person or situation. If you agree to something but feel tense, unsettled, nervous or foggy, you may need to turn that “yes” into a “no” and set a boundary.
  2. Identify what is and isn’t under your control. We cannot change the behavior of another person; we can only control our own actions. A boundary is a clear statement about what you will or will not do or tolerate. It isn’t an attempt to manipulate another person or tell them what to do.
  3. Be direct. When setting a boundary, be as clear and specific as you can about the line you are drawing. Leaving room for ambiguity or misinterpretation may feel more pleasant in the short term but could create opportunity for someone to manipulate or violate your boundary in the future.
  4. Be ready for repercussions. It is said that those who react most strongly to your boundaries are those who benefited from your lack of boundaries. If you are setting a new boundary with someone—especially if it is the first time setting one with them—you may face backlash in the form of sadness, anger, criticism, coldness or gossip.
  5. Go easy on yourself. If you didn’t have healthy boundaries modeled when you were growing up, it may be difficult to set boundaries in emotional situations. Instead of starting with the most difficult relationship in your life, start working this muscle by setting boundaries in situations where you know they will be honored and respected.

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