Challenging Family Scripts and Setting Healthy Boundaries During the Holidays

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November 24, 2019

As a marriage and family therapist, I was asked to speak at a recent Lady Docs gathering about family interactions that play a prominent role during this holiday season.  Feel free to journal as the group did last week as we explore family relationships.

As therapists, we treat people as part of a family system and we focus on personal transformation as the agent of change for the invisible but powerful dynamics of relationships. During the holiday season, making personal changes to thinking and behavior is the primary way to navigate difficult family moments.

Did you think I was going to teach you how to manage your troublesome family members? Or make your partner behave? Surprise! Change starts by changing yourself.

First, relationship scripts. (Or, why despite your intentions, interactions during the holidays go the way they always have gone.)

When we’re with family, the scripts can be very strong. Think of a movie: the script tells us what happens next, what things mean, and what our role is. It’s our programming. Think about your childhood for a moment, or your teenage years. What was your family role? Were you the troublemaker? The peace maker? The invisible one? The perfect one? Other roles include homebody, instigator, justice enforcer, nurturer, pleaser, social coordinator…

Take a few moments to journal about the roles you played in your family growing up.

Often, these roles were beneficial to us in some way. They existed within a family context. And they were reinforced by the roles that other family members played. For example: 

I was the homebody so that my mom wouldn’t drink too much. 

I was the perfect one, so my parents had someone to be proud of when my sister was in rehab. 

Because scripts are usually one dimensional, they required us to abandon our true, whole, complex Selves. The abandonment happens in two main ways:

  1. I must self-betray in order to connect with you. In order to belong, I must abandon my Self (personality, preferences, values, opinions). This looks like enmeshment, parroting/mirroring, staying silent. The tools are numbing, ignoring the inner voice of your truth, mixing up yeses and nos. 
  2. I must disconnect from you in order to claim myself. In order to belong to my Self, I must abandon you. This looks like cut off, moving far way, rejection. The tools are anger, using emotional or physical, holding grudges. 

Take a few moments to journal about the ways your narrow family roles required you to abandon your Self or others.

In a strange twist, the family scripts of our childhood often they play out in some way in our current partnerships and parenting — either because we are repeating them (I was the peacemaker in my parents’ marriage and now I’m the smoother of sibling conflict between my kids) or by acting in opposition to them (I was the perfect one who never got in trouble and now I’m struggling with alcohol and long hours at work). This makes it harder to change them because they are reinforced.

But change them we can! I believe in you! How? Boundaries.

The way we bring consciousness to scripts and reactivity is through boundaries. What is a boundary? It’s a dividing line. Helpful images are fences on a farm or the guard rail on a highway. Boundaries tell us where we can travel safely, and when to stop. Boundaries tell others how far they can go before then need to stop, or at least before they need permission to enter. Setting boundaries in the real world is super hard. Because of scripts! Because our parents likely didn’t model this for us. 

Boundaries also help reduce reactivity, which is the way we respond to others without thinking. Reactivity is unconscious and feels like we’re on autopilot – and reactivity is the cause of many a relationship problem. Our reactivity shows up in the script – either I numb myself out to avoid conflict and belong – or I outsize myself to claim my uniqueness but squash others in the process. In my book, The Marriage Counseling Workbook, I write that “reactivity gives us a very narrow lens through which we make assumptions, draw opinions, and observe others.” Boundaries reduce reactivity by giving us a place to stop, pause, and consider. Reactivity becomes responding, which is much more thoughtful and intentional.

Boundaries are important because they help us stay centered in Self. With a boundary on both sides, the pendulum won’t swing too far to the extremes of abandoning self or others. They allow us to compromise, without straying from our truth. They allow us to stand up for our truth, while staying connected. Boundaries create space for “I can be me, while you are being you. We are separate and connected.”

Take a few moments to journal about the boundaries you already set well in your life. How do you reinforce them when they are crossed?

Now, let’s apply these ideas of scripts, reactivity, and boundaries to what’s about to happen during the holidays. Think about the meals you will have with family, the parties with colleagues and friends, the traditions and experiences that make your holidays both special and stressful. 

How does your childhood role play out during the holidays? Will you be with the family members who helped create the role? Or will you be with your chosen family with whom your childhood role has morphed? Where does your reactivity show up? For example:

I am the family peacekeeper, so I’m going to be on high alert during Thanksgiving dinner conversation. I’m hypersensitive to conflict and often interrupt with a joke to calm the tension.

Now, let’s think about the boundaries you can set. Which way are you moving towards centered and Self? Is your move away from self-betrayal (stop saying yes when you mean no, stop participating in a conversation you don’t feel comfortable with)? Or is your move away from disconnection (stop avoiding conversation, stop saying no when part of you wants to say yes)? For example:

                  Say, “Thanks for asking about my separation, but I’m not ready to talk about it tonight.”

                  Go to the dinner party but leave before dessert is served. 

Bonus tip! 

Okay, so your partner or close/safe family member isn’t off the hook for helping facilitate change during the holidays. Here’s a bonus tip from my workbook:

Together, create a secret signal of connection and support. Before the gathering begins, decide together on a signal you can give or receive that means “the script is happening. I need help/can I help you?


A shoulder squeeze

A joke (need a joke? Why were medieval times called the Dark Ages? Because they were full of knights!”  Ha!)

A code phrase “You look lovely tonight.”

EDITOR’S NOTE:  Dr. Cook is author of The Marriage Counseling Workbook: 8 Steps to a Strong and Lasting Relationship, which covers communication, money, intimacy, anger, and conflict―offering insight into relationship struggles and approaches to resolving them.  Thanks, Emily, for your talk at our LadyDocs holiday gathering and for leaving us with valuable tips for our own family gatherings and those of our patients.