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6 Steps to Design Healthy Holiday Boundaries

A guide to manage holiday stress for years to come.

Key points

  • Healthy boundaries promote mental wellness.
  • The holidays often pose a unique challenge to boundary setting.
  • These 6 steps can help to design healthier boundaries to buffer holiday stress.

The holiday season is a unique time. For some, it’s the most wonderful time of the year; for others, it may be less pleasant; and, for some, it may even trigger mental health challenges. Regardless of where you are on this spectrum, it’s hard to deny or avoid the added energy of the holidays. To keep yourself well in the weeks to come, you can benefit from designing healthy boundaries to buffer your holiday stress. Here are six steps to help you:

 Kira aud der heide/Pixabay
Source: Kira aud der heide/Pixabay

1. Carve out time in your holiday schedule to reflect.

Congratulations! Just by reading this far, you are technically well on your way to this first, crucial step. I know that taking a beat to reflect may seem obvious, but in my mental health private practice, year after year, I’m consistently surprised how many people by the end of the season cite a boundary infraction without being able to clearly state what the boundary was in the first place. We will get to those parts as we continue, but, before doing so, you need to set aside time to think about what healthy holiday boundaries look like for you.

Sometimes the mere intention of exploring boundaries to foster joy in this season prompts critical details that can be used to articulate boundaries. For example, when I think about my hope for the holidays, it often includes quality time with loved ones. That thought offers me the signals of “time” and “people.” Perhaps a similar thought comes to mind for you; however, it is likely that holiday boundaries will differ in need and effectiveness from person to person. That is not only OK but also expected. This is another reason why personal reflection is key: What may appear as a healthy holiday boundary for someone in your life may not be directly suited for you. Here are some prompts to consider:

  • How do I usually experience the holidays?
  • What stands out from the last holiday season?
  • What do I hope is different this year?
  • What have holiday boundaries looked like for me in the past?
  • What might I need to set healthy boundaries?
  • Who can support me in setting healthy boundaries?

You would benefit from delving into these questions before your décor is up; however, it’s never too late to begin considering boundaries that can help to keep you balanced and aligned. In addition, keep up the habit of reflection in the weeks to come—after all, it is an entire season. This practice will also help to inform stronger boundaries with each passing year.

2. Explore your wishlist.

Did you make a wishlist for Santa as a child? I distinctly remember doing this activity, in school, nonetheless, despite our holiday traditions. We took time to consider what gifts we wanted, and the following boundary-design activity is somewhat like that.

Delving deep into your reflection, it is helpful to clarify your wishes. If you have them accessible, grab a pen and paper. Draw a medium circle in the center of your paper. Begin to brainstorm your hopes for the season and jot those on the inside. Also take time to consider the opposite, what you hope to avoid this season, and place those out of the circle. Do you notice any themes? At a glance, balancing what is on the inside and the outside of the circle forms the foundation for your holiday boundaries.

You can complete this in one sitting or allow yourself time to plant your prompts and allow them to surface over a day or two. If it’s important to you to celebrate this season with a loved one or a few, it may be helpful to complete this activity together.

3. Manage and surrender.

Some of your wishes may be within your control and others not so much. Our energy isn’t boundless, and it tends to be stretched thin during this season. To help yourself find balance and design healthier boundaries, it can be helpful to prioritize what you can manage and practice surrendering what is beyond your control.

You may find it helpful to return to the activity and place a star next to the wishes that you can manage, and perhaps even two next to the ones that are top-priority and manageable. Before you are quick to write off the ones that are beyond your control, see if you can extract the intention of that wish to find a more manageable segment. For example, if you put one billion dollars inside your circle, could you find the core intention—perhaps saving, maintaining a budget, working harder, asking for a raise, applying to a new job, etc.?

4. Establish a strong foundation.

As you begin to string together your holiday wishes, you may notice that support can be helpful in the process. What materials and equipment might you need? Do you need helpers? Like any other time of the year, a key tactic to scaffold a sturdy boundary is to consider what you need to make that boundary successful. Let’s say the billion-dollar wish was refined to saving money to purchase a home. To support this boundary, perhaps you could use a budgeting app, an accountability partner, or a real estate agent.

5. Articulate your boundaries.

While boundaries tend to be subjective, something that is consistent is that each and every boundary has a personal element to it. Yes, that’s right, even the boundaries with the person at the table trying to passive-aggressively comment on your plate and sticking their nose into your personal business all have a personal component. I emphasize this because oftentimes in the boundary-design process we have a general idea of the boundary we wish to maintain and decide that we do not need to communicate them to the other person(s). While there are certainly times that this is valid, it’s the subtle neglect of abandoning the articulation at the personal level that often causes a snowy slope.

For each holiday boundary that begins to surface, consider the following:

  • What does this boundary protect?
  • Why is this boundary important to me?
  • What may this boundary look like in action?
  • What would it look like if this boundary were breached?
  • How can I set this boundary in place?
  • How can I remedy boundary infractions?
  • What self-care can I practice when my boundary is breached?

6. Invest in maintenance.

Designing healthy boundaries is based in love rather than fear. Knowing what is valuable to you opens the doorway for compassion through learning what is important to those around you. Boundary infractions are inevitable over time as contexts shift and there are elements beyond our control; however, an engaged process of reflecting and refining boundaries is an act of self-love and can better help you spread joy, too. Caution the set-it-and-leave-it approach to boundaries. Instead, to respect your boundaries, give yourself the space to repeat these steps as needed. Learn from your experiences and tweak your parameters. Creating this holiday tradition can help you in this season and many more to come.

More from Shainna Ali Ph.D., LMHC, NCC
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