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Boundaries Around the Holidays

Updated: Mar 22, 2023

The trees and holiday décor are lining the halls at Target and our families have started to ask what our plans are, which can only mean one thing: the holidays are suddenly about to begin. October flew by, and it has become time to start thinking about Thanksgiving and Christmas. This time of year can bring up a whole litany of emotions ranging from joy and gratitude to depression and anxiety. There are many reasons that this holiday season might feel different from years past. Maybe this is your first holiday as a newlywed couple, and you are having to navigate managing or merging two different sets of family expectations. Maybe this is the first holiday after a loss and you are grieving that this will be the first year without a loved one. Maybe this is your child’s first Christmas, and there is a renewed sense of joy and magic in the air. Or maybe you have just had a long, difficult year, and getting to the holidays seems more like ending a marathon than a celebration.

However you are experiencing this holiday season, caring for yourself and your loved ones is never a bad place to start. Boundaries during this time of year are especially important, and they can also be some of the most challenging to set. The holidays can sometimes bring up challenging emotions in yourself and others. I’ve found it helpful to think about boundaries in several “buckets,” and I hope that this approach can help you as you navigate family dynamics and your expectations.

  • Time: Time can be one of the scarcest resources during this time of year. It is so easy to fill up your whole calendar and end up completely exhausted. Setting boundaries with your time looks like sitting down and deciding which things get to be a priority and which do not. I say this in my most gentle voice: you are not an Energizer bunny. You are a human being who needs rest and time to decompress so that you can show up as your full self to the things that are important to you. Schedule rest. Put it on the calendar. Schedule time to just be present and watch your favorite Christmas movie or whatever feels the most restful to you. Having rest will make all of the other items on your holiday calendar more enjoyable by increasing your ability to be present and connected.

  • Conflict: Conflict is sometimes unavoidable when the family gets together. It can also be the thing that makes you cringe whenever you think about spending time with your family. The first step to setting boundaries around conflict is a personal one. If conflict is a trigger for you, this is probably a good time to talk to your therapist about what emotions are triggered during the conflict, your conflict style, and what resources you need when conflict arises. I could go on to explain all the different ways that you might be impacted by conflict, but that could be a whole other blog post. My short version is: remember that you are loved and good enough and that no one else can take that away. If someone is being rude, you are allowed to step away and communicate that you do not wish to be spoken to that way. You are allowed to change the subject or gently say that certain topics are off-limits. Deep breaths and quick, silent prayers are always encouraged.

  • Money: Something that I learned the hard way when entering adulthood is that Christmas is expensive. Setting boundaries around what you can spend as a family and what budget line items get the biggest priority can help avoid unnecessary conflict and stress. I would recommend having a Family Holiday Budget meeting early in November if that is the sort of thing that appeals to you. It is also helpful to have some sort of tracker for gifts and how much was spent to keep your budget on track. There are several great apps for this, but also pen and paper is great if you are more analog, like me.

  • Expectations: This is not a research-based opinion, but my anecdotal observations are that unmet expectations cause the majority of conflict around the holidays. Talking with your family about their expectations can mitigate a lot of surprise reactions and ensure a little bit smoother holiday. Here are some questions to consider as you begin thinking about setting expectations for the holiday:

  • Which traditions or activities are the most important? Are there any new traditions you’re wanting to try?

  • How do you want the holiday to feel? Ex. Is fun your main goal? A peaceful holiday? Giving space to grieve if needed?

  • How much downtime do you and your family members need?

  • Are there any family members that have different expectations than you? What does a conversation with them look like?

  • How much travel are we open to this year?

  • How do we want to incorporate our faith this year? Do we want to observe Advent?

Finally, anytime we talk about boundaries, it is important to acknowledge that others might not always respond well to setting them. Here are the things that I always remind myself and my clients about when thinking about setting boundaries:

  • To quote the wonderful Brene Brown, “Clear is kind.” Clearly communicating your boundaries is the kindest thing you can do. Not everyone will respond well, but you will know that you have been honest and open about where you stand. This is especially true when discussing expectations and conflict.

  • Their reaction is not a reflection of you. Many of us grew up in homes where emotions were not validated, and we might have trouble not internalizing the reactions of others. Know that you are allowed to have needs and take up space. Boundaries are about what is your responsibility versus someone else’s, and someone else’s reaction and response is always their responsibility, not yours.

  • You are not a bad person for setting boundaries, even if someone is disappointed. Boundaries help you say yes to what is important to you and your family and help you show up as a fully present version of yourself.

If setting boundaries is hard for you, please do not hesitate to reach out to a trusted partner, friend, or therapist to talk through what is coming up for you. Whatever this holiday season holds, we at Remain Connected are here to support you in creating the Thanksgiving and Christmas you need.

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