In the latest installment of our conversations with Fort Worth newsmakers, Dr. Nanette Allison, a child and adolescent psychiatrist with JPS Health Network, speaks with health reporter Alexis Allison, no relation, about what boundaries look like and how to set them.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. For a longer version, please listen to the audio file attached to this article.

Alexis Allison: So Dr. Allison, we know that for some people who struggle with mental health, the holidays can make things even worse. Why is that?

Dr. Nanette Allison: I think people usually associate the holidays with family and togetherness. But for those that have lost loved ones, it can be a time of year that really exacerbates grief and feelings of loneliness. People that already have mental health concerns, they may feel their symptoms worsen, especially if they don’t have a support system, or if they don’t have loved ones that rally around them during this time.

Alexis Allison: I’ve been Googling how to stay mentally healthy during the holidays, and something that I see that crops up in some form or other is this idea of setting boundaries. And I’m wondering first, if you can tell us what it means to set boundaries, and then about some of the kinds of boundaries that are relevant during the holidays.

Dr. Nanette Allison: Let’s start by defining what a boundary is: It is a limit on what you’re willing to endure and the consequences if those limits are crossed. So in essence, you’re not willing to make yourself uncomfortable so other people are comfortable. That’s a hard concept for a lot of people. I think a lot of us were born and raised to be people-pleasers, to put other people’s needs ahead of our own, so it can feel very uncomfortable to put your needs first and to say, ‘No, I’m uncomfortable in this situation. I’m not going to tolerate this.’ 

I was doing some reading about boundaries in general, and there was a website that documented five different types of boundaries:

  1. We have emotional boundaries. And this is when people dismiss your emotions, or they emotionally dump on you. So they project things onto you, right? And so being able to say ‘No, this topic is inappropriate, I don’t want to talk about this’ — that’s an appropriate boundary. 
  2. There are also mental boundaries. So, how many times have you seen a conversation with someone who talks about issues like religion or politics, and you get so enraged and upset because somebody else is trying to impose their beliefs onto you? They define that as a mental boundary. 
  3. There are time or energy boundaries. How many times has someone asked you to do something last minute? ‘You being unprepared does not mean that that’s an emergency on my part.’ Being able to verbalize that in a positive way, that’s setting a time or energy boundary. 
  4. Then there’s material boundaries — people always needing something from you. What if someone wants your car, but you need to go to work, or you need to do other things? That’s a material boundary. 
  5. The last boundary is a physical boundary. So unwanted touch, people getting in your personal space.

Alexis Allison: What recommendations do you have for people who are thinking about trying to set and maintain boundaries during the holidays?

Dr. Nanette Allison: First thing that comes to mind is that your boundaries have to be clear. You have to be able to set clear parameters on what you will accept and what you are not willing to accept. It’s almost like a gate: That person can come up to that line, but they can’t cross over. And you have to know in your mind what you’re willing to do once that gate is crossed, right? I always tell people, ‘Boundaries are for you, they’re not for the other person.’ So it’s not an ultimatum. It’s not ‘You better do this or else,’ right? It is, ‘If you decide to do this, I will do this.’ 

That way, you are retaining control of the situation and of your emotions. And you know, once you start feeling uncomfortable or upset or frustrated, what you will end up doing to make yourself comfortable again. I think the other thing that people need to remember is, they have to be consistent in the boundary that they set. The more you’re consistent, the more other people are going to realize, ‘Oh, this is their limit. This is what they’re going to tolerate and not tolerate.’ And over time, with consistency, hopefully they will respect that boundary.

Alexis Allison: Do you have language or an example of what someone might say when it comes to setting a boundary?

Dr. Nanette Allison: Sure. I recently had a patient who, over Thanksgiving, they were terrified of meeting family, because they have family members that always comment on their weight. And so they did a really great job when that happened over Thanksgiving. They told the person, ‘I think that’s really inappropriate that you were talking about my weight, and I’m not going to engage in this conversation.’ 

So they took ownership. They told the person, ‘This really makes me feel uncomfortable,’ or upset, whatever that emotion is, and that ‘I’m not going to stay here and listen to this conversation.’ They got up and walked out of the room. So again, you’re verbalizing your emotion and then you’re taking action to protect yourself and to protect your peace. That’s how you should always structure a boundary.

Alexis Allison: I love that example. I know that you work specifically with children and young people, and I’m wondering if boundaries work differently for those age groups? 

Dr. Nanette Allison: The lesson of boundaries should start very young, even with our toddlers. Autonomy is really big for me. Touch — wanted touch, unwanted touch. That’s a part of autonomy. And so I always ask children, even children in my family, ‘Can I have a hug?’ Not, ‘Give me a hug.’ Because that way they learn that they control their body and what happens to them. And they’re given the autonomy to say, ‘Yes, you can have a hug,’ or ‘No, you cannot.’

And then being able to sit with that ‘no’ if it comes, right? As a parent, I feel like we should always teach our kids this starting very young, but you also have to manage the other adults in the room so they also honor what that child says. If that starts young, when they become teenagers, and they are in difficult situations, they feel empowered that they’re able to say ‘no.’ 

If they’re in a situation that is unwanted, or if they’re in a situation where they feel uncomfortable, they have that power, because they’ve been taught from when they were really little that ‘No is no,’ and I have the power to say ‘no,’ and that ‘no’ should be honored.

Alexis Allison: Thank you for sharing that. Is there anything else that we should know about setting boundaries as we approach this next wave of holidays?

Dr. Nanette Allison: You cannot change another person’s behavior. You can only change how you respond to that behavior. Sometimes we get caught up in changing people and it takes our power away if we try to change somebody else. And so I want listeners to know that they can retain their power by setting these boundaries, limits on what they’re willing to tolerate and then moving away from things that make them feel uncomfortable. They retain their power that way. 

Alexis Allison is the health reporter at the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from Texas Health Resources. Contact her at alexis.allison@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, by following our guidelines.

Avatar photo

Alexis AllisonHealth Reporter

Alexis Allison covers health for the Fort Worth Report. When she can, she'll slip in an illustration or two. Allison is a former high school English teacher and hopes her journalism is likewise educational....