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Setting Boundaries During The Holidays

At a time of year that prioritizes family, it can feel incredibly isolating when visiting relatives might not be an option for you or when it doesn’t feel like a safe or welcoming environment.

When these difficult family dynamics combine with holiday-season stress, we may find ourselves at a crossroads. Do we freak out and spend the holidays in a state of discomfort or do we set boundaries around our time, space, and energy?

Whether you have a strained relationship with your family or you struggle with all of the overwhelming expectations that come along with the holidays, It's important to safeguard your mental health by setting boundaries and prioritizing self-care.

Setting Boundaries With Family Members

For many of us, breaking the people-pleasing pattern and setting boundaries poses a unique challenge. The holidays are a time when extended families tend to gather. While this can be a wonderful thing, even the most close-knit families can overdo it, making it hard to maintain a healthy balance between bonding and alone time.

Boundaries can protect your material possessions, your emotions, your physical space, or your spiritual beliefs. They set the basic guidelines of how you want to be treated.

When you prepare to have difficult conversations about boundaries, keep these things in mind:

  • People are not mind readers. They won't know unless you tell them.

  • Setting boundaries is a courageous act of putting ourselves first. It’s a great way to break the people-pleasing habit and practice the art of self-care.

  • There is no shame in directly asking for your feelings to be acknowledged or your needs to be met.

It’s Okay Not To Go Home For The Holidays

You are not selfish for wanting to spend the holidays at home eating takeout. It can be hard to break a tradition that's been in your family for decades, but you are allowed to have your own understanding of what makes the “perfect” holiday.

It’s Okay To Disengage In Uncomfortable Conversations

You don’t have to choose between getting into a heated argument or forcing an uncomfortable smile. Figure out the conversations that you absolutely will not engage in and a few responses that will help you set your boundaries kindly but firmly.

Try this: " I feel uncomfortable when you talk about politics over Thanksgiving dinner because it creates an atmosphere of tension. Let’s change the topic to something less controversial so we can enjoy one another's company."

What If They React Negatively To My Boundaries?

Your family members may get angry or upset when you state what your boundaries are. They may even use guilt in an attempt to make you change your mind. It’s important to enter these challenging conversations with realistic expectations for how your loved ones may react. Preparing for surprise, anger, or sadness will make it easier to hold firm to your boundary when faced with resistance.

During the conversation, acknowledge that your boundary may be difficult to hear. This helps your loved one feel seen and included in the process. It's a good idea to offer positive alternatives so your loved one knows that you're willing to work to find ways of interacting that feel good for both of you.

For example:

  • “I will be staying at a hotel when I come home for Christmas this year. I would love to carve out a day to spend together, just the two of us.”

  • “Talking about this topic is difficult for me. Can we change the conversation? I’d love to hear how work’s been going for you.”

Sometimes, no matter how firmly you hold to your boundary, others will be unwilling to change. You only have control over your own reactions and behavior. Sometimes, you may have to choose between tolerating the unacceptable behavior or evacuating the environment (e.g., not attending the family’s holiday gathering, ceasing contact with a family member altogether, etc.)

Though deeply challenging, making the bold decision to evacuate a toxic environment is a phenomenal act of self-care.

Remember: you can simultaneously set boundaries AND be loving, compassionate, and kind. You can sit with your loved one and hold space for their reaction, and reiterate how much they mean to you—all while making clear that your boundary is non-negotiable.

Boundaries are not mean. As a parent or sibling, you may feel obligated to offer your time, money, space, or energy without limitation. Boundaries enable you to prioritize your own needs and give at a sustainable rate. It is a gift that only you can give yourself.

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