How to Handle This Thanksgiving with Bipolar Disorder by Setting Healthy Boundaries

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When my father pressured me at the last minute to host a family Thanksgiving two days before I was slated to drive 1500 miles last year, I refused.

At first I agreed. Why not cook a feast for my extended family, at least seven people in addition to my own husband and two children (11 people total)? I would have loved to have my family over and fete them with all the trappings of the Thanksgiving holiday, all of which I would be cooking by myself because my husband was finishing up tasks at work in order to prepare for our road trip.

This made sense to me at the time. I could do laundry and pack for the massive, month-long road trip after the Thanksgiving holiday was done, right?

But I realized that as a woman with bipolar I, that much stress would immediately spin me out into a dangerous manic episode. Because of my very serious psychiatric condition, I wouldn’t have been able to even enjoy the holiday or the road trip because I would be too busy preparing for both. If I had hosted Thanksgiving like my father wanted, I may have even ended up in a mental hospital.

Once I recognized that hosting a holiday was not only overwhelming but unhealthy, I then had to set a boundary, something that has been very difficult for me in the past. Girding up my strength, I texted my father back and told him my immediate family would be skipping the Thanksgiving holiday entirely that year in order to preserve my mental health.

His disappointment rang clear to me through his emoji-filled text, but he thankfully understood my reasoning, and ended up enjoying Thanksgiving with my sister. My immediate family ended up baking a small turkey breast we bought at Costco and making mashed potatoes, a very low-key holiday of our own for just the four of us.

Thanksgiving, an American feast holiday including traditional dishes like turkey and pumpkin pie typically eaten with friends and family, can be tricky when bipolar disorder is an uninvited guest.

The stress of the holiday, especially when taking on tasks like all the cooking for a large group, may tip a person you over into mania or hypomania, after which there is almost always a depressive crash.

I am here to tell you that your holidays do not have to be unhealthy.

You can stick to your guns and set healthy boundaries with your friends and family.

If you are an adult, your family absolutely cannot force you into any uncomfortable position unless you let them. Will there be consequences for asserting yourself? Yes, definitely. But those consequences may not be as awful for your and those surrounding you as damaging yourself with a manic episode.

Why Setting Boundaries is Important

When you first start to set boundaries, you will be uncomfortable, especially if you’ve never set them before. But doing so is incredibly important. If you do not express your preferences and stick to your guns about them, you invite people to ignore your needs and set them up to fail.

Set them up to fail? What? How does that make sense? It’s simple, really.

People aren’t mind readers. But how can they be good to you if you don’t tell them what your preferences are? If you don’t tell people if you’re angry or even annoyed, they can’t respond in a proper way and they’ll continue responding in the way they feel is right based on limited information, possibly angering you or annoying you further.

If you don’t tell people the truth about what you like or what your preferences are, and if you just go along with what they say or don’t say no to them about something that feels violating to you, you are setting them up to fail.

That doesn’t lead to a productive conversation or to someone knowing the real you. This is not your fault, but it doesn’t have to be this way. You can express your needs and get them met.

Here’s how.

How to Set Boundaries This Holiday Season

Telling my father that my family wasn’t going to enjoy Thanksgiving with him was extremely difficult for me, someone who doesn’t set boundaries often, and especially not with him.

But having done my own research on how to set boundaries and having talked with my therapist about techniques, I was prepared.

Here are my steps to setting boundaries:

1. Find a supportive friend or partner to vent your feelings to before and after setting your boundary.

When I set boundaries with my father, I expressed my feelings of being overwhelmed to my husband, who helped me realize I could not take on the task of hosting Thanksgiving that year. My husband gave me the perspective and the courage I needed to stand up to my dad.

If you cannot find a friend or partner in your personal life offline to vent to, you may have more success online. You can also use a therapist for this. (For a post on how to start seeing a therapist, click here.)

2. Use clear, easy-to-understand language.

When expressing your needs, you do not want to be misunderstood or give anyone any leeway or wiggle room to interpret your words differently. Write down what you want to say ahead of time and read from your notes if necessary.

One of the best ways to express your feelings to others is to use “I” statements. When you say, “you made me feel…” that shifts blame onto the other person and puts them on the defensive. Plus, framing the sentence that way doesn’t allow you to take responsibility for your own feelings. Try “I feel,” instead.

Last Thanksgiving, I communicated with my own father via phone text, the medium he chose, so I was fortunate that I could tweak my words before sending him the message until they were the most effective I could come up with.

3. Modulate your tone.

Setting boundaries with an angry tone doesn’t work. People dismiss other angry people, and may end up getting defensive themselves. Try to speak as neutrally as possible. This will be difficult, but having your needs listened to and respected is worth it.

I always try to remain calm when setting boundaries. If I find myself getting worked up, I tell the person that I’m setting the boundary with that I need to walk away momentarily and will be back when I’m calm.

4. Do not over-explain yourself, or explain yourself at all if you so choose.

When you set a boundary, expect to be listened to. If you find that people are unable or unwilling to understand what you’ve said, repeat your clear, easy-to-understand statement until they get it. There is no need to over-explain your reasonings.

When I’ve over-explained in the past, I’ve found that people do not believe that I the boundary I am trying to set is firm. Having solid reasons–which I do not have to explain at all if I so choose, and neither do you–requires me to think about them ahead of time to determine if I’m comfortable with those reasons. In the Thanksgiving example, my mental health and the health of my immediate family had to come first.

5. Set consequences if your boundaries are crossed.

The most effective boundaries have consequences. You can always, always stop speaking to your family. It’s uncomfortable, but you might find that it’s freeing as well. If they’re not going to treat you in the way you deserve, with respect and kindness, then they do not in turn deserve your attention.

When setting boundaries with my father during Thanksgiving, I was fully prepared to stop speaking to him. Thankfully he understood my set boundary and I didn’t have to, but if he hadn’t and I’d stopped speaking to him, then he wouldn’t have seen us for Thanksgiving anyway, and possibly longer, depending on how long I was willing to stick to my guns. It was a win-win for me.

Specific Examples of Boundaries You can Set

Here are some specific examples of boundaries you can set and the language you can use to set them:

  • To set a boundary with an angry family member, say something like, “You will not treat me [in the specific way they’re treating you]. If you continue, I will leave the room (or hang up the phone call).”
  • To set a boundary with someone who criticizes you, say something like, “It is not okay with me that you comment on my [specific example, like eating patterns]. Please stop.”
  • To set a boundary with someone who asks too much of you, say something like, “Although you are important to me, I must say no to your [specific request] to take care of myself and my family.”
  • To back out of a commitment, say something like, “I know I agreed to [specific task], but after looking over my schedule, I recognize that I will not be able to give [the task] my all. I want to help you find a replacement by [specific date].”

Conclusion

Setting boundaries with your family will be difficult, but the personal power you gain will be worth it. Get some perspective from a trusted friend, use clear, easy-to-understand language, modulate your tone, do not over-explain yourself, and set consequences.

When I set my own boundary, I was fortunate that my father respected me enough to understand why I set it. But I was fully prepared to stop speaking to him. I set my boundary and stuck to it, and I had a peaceful holiday with my immediate family that I wouldn’t have traded for anything.

You can handle this Thanksgiving. Remember, you get to decide what your holiday season looks like. You family cannot force you into anything you do not choose to do. Your mental health is paramount, and if you do not protect yourself, no one else will.

I wish you well.

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Author: Cassandra Stout

Freelance writer Cassandra Stout blogs weekly at the award-winning Bipolar Parent, a comprehensive resource for parents with mental illnesses. She also blogs monthly at the International Bipolar Foundation website (IPBF.org). Her work has been published in the anthology, How the Light Gets In. Cassandra holds degrees from the University of Arizona in Creative Writing and Journalism. She has been a judge for the Pacific Northwest Writers' Association literary contest for nine years, where her memoir, Committed, recently placed as a finalist. She balances her literary work with raising her children, feeding her cat, and managing her bipolar disorder.