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Healthy Holiday Boundaries

Happy holidays are built on setting healthy limits.

Key points

  • Boundaries are an essential form of self-care.
  • Boundaries decrease conflicts and misunderstandings.
  • It's OK to say no—even during the holidays.

For most of us, the holidays are stressful. Even if you generally enjoy the holiday season, it comes with added pressures—social commitments, additional expenses, family gatherings, cooking, and cleaning. And many of us don’t follow our normal routines—which help us maintain healthy habits and use positive coping strategies—during the holidays.

 Any Lane/Pexels
Source: Any Lane/Pexels

Boundaries are the key to a happy, healthy holiday season.

Types of Holiday Boundaries

Boundaries are limits that we set with ourselves and others. They ensure that we take care of ourselves. Without boundaries, we run the risk of spending all our time, energy, and money making other people happy without considering our own needs (for things like rest, fun, connection, and quiet); we end up resentful, exhausted, unfulfilled, and overwhelmed.

Boundaries also provide physical and emotional safety. Everyone deserves to feel safe. We can’t form trusting relationships, feel good about ourselves, or be productive if our basic need for physical and emotional safety isn’t met.

Many people fear that boundaries will create conflict or distance in their relationships, but boundaries actually improve relationships. As I explain in The Better Boundaries Workbook, your boundaries may initially be met with resistance, but most people will adjust to them, and your relationships will be strengthened by clearer communication, fewer misunderstandings, and greater trust, respect, and connection.

So, what does a healthy boundary look like? Here are a few examples of healthy holiday boundaries:

  • Feeling empowered to skip, go late, leave early, or drive your own car to holiday parties.
  • Saying yes because you want to, not out of obligation or to please others.
  • Asking your guests not to discuss politics.
  • Choosing not to send holiday cards (or any other holiday tradition).
  • Limiting how much alcohol you consume.
  • Sticking to your budget.
  • Clearly communicating your needs and expectations.
  • Not checking your work emails on your day off.

The holidays revolve around giving to others and making others happy, so it can be extra hard to set limits at this time of year. There’s nothing wrong with giving and taking care of others as long as you aren’t compromising your health, values, and mental well-being to do it. Setting boundaries doesn’t mean you don’t care about others; boundaries demonstrate that you care about others and you care about yourself.

Now is the time to figure out what specific boundaries you need to set during the holiday season. You can start by identifying people and situations that contribute to difficult feelings, such as anger, disappointment, resentment, stress, being overwhelmed, fear, and sadness. These are signs that you need better boundaries in these situations.

Limits With Yourself

Boundaries are a form of self-management. Most of us need to set limits with ourselves to stay healthy. This could include going to bed on time or making a budget for holiday spending and sticking to it.

Limits With Others

Boundaries also involve telling others how you want to be treated or what you expect from them. This could include telling your sister to call before she comes over. Or you might let your mother-in-law know that it’s not OK to criticize your parenting—and to leave the room if she persists.

It's important to clearly and directly communicate your request. If you’re asking a close friend or family member to change their behavior, you may want to explain how their behavior is negatively impacting you. For example, “I feel frustrated when you show up unannounced. It disrupts my schedule. Please remember to call ahead.”

However, if you’re dealing with someone who repeatedly challenges your boundaries, it’s best not to offer an explanation. Some people will insist that your reasons for setting a boundary are wrong, no matter what they are. In this case, you can simply say, “Please call before you come over.”

Saying No

You can’t please everyone all of the time—and you shouldn’t try to. People who struggle with boundaries often feel guilty when they say no and hate to disappoint people. The best way to avoid disappointing people is to clearly communicate (ahead of time, if possible) what you can and cannot do. This allows them to adjust their expectations or make other plans. For tips on how to say no gently, please see the article How to Set Boundaries With Kindness.

You can say no to anything that doesn't bring you joy this holiday season. You don’t even need a “good reason.” You can say no because you simply don’t want to do something, you’re tired, or you feel anxious. Your boundaries don’t have to make sense to other people; you’re an adult and you know what’s best for yourself.

Maintaining Your Boundaries

Setting boundaries isn’t a one-time occurrence. You may need to repeatedly set the same boundary with some people. And you may need to identify some strategies to keep yourself true to your self-management goals. Below are a few tips to help you stick to your boundaries when the going gets tough:

  • Write them down. Writing down your boundaries can help you clarify what you want to achieve and why it’s important.
  • Consider what you’ll do if someone repeatedly violates your boundaries. We can only ask people to change their behavior—we can’t force them to change. However, that doesn’t mean you should tolerate hurtful or disrespectful behavior. Often, you can choose not to interact with people who violate your boundaries (or at least minimize your contact with them). For example, if your sister persists in coming over unannounced, you don’t have to open the door and have a conversation with her. Doing so undermines your attempts to set a boundary and lets her know that there are no consequences for violating your boundaries.
  • Practice. Setting boundaries is a skill, and, if you’re not used to doing it, it will take some practice. I encourage my clients to write a script before they set difficult boundaries. Rehearsing what you want to say (alone or with a trusted friend or therapist) will increase your confidence and skills.
  • Know which boundaries are nonnegotiable. We all have some boundaries that are deal-breakers. These are usually boundaries related to health and safety. But, it makes sense for some of your boundaries to be flexible. You might intentionally make an exception to a boundary for a special occasion, such as Christmas. Or you might compromise on a boundary with your spouse to ensure that you both get your needs met. Knowing which boundaries are nonnegotiable will help you determine when flexibility is useful and when it’s conceding.

When you say no to people and activities that drain your resources or fill you with dread, it creates space for people and activities that renew your energy and bring you joy. The holidays aren’t just about making other people happy; your needs and wants matter, too! And when you feel your best, you can fully engage in holiday activities and authentically connect with others.

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