‘Tis the Season to Set Boundaries: Tips for Surviving the Holidays

Angry person, mouth agape, sitting on the floor attempting to disentangle string lights.

They say good fences make good neighbors, and one could also say that well-thought-out boundaries make happier holidays. This time of the year can feel overwhelming and stressful. Setting boundaries is an opportunity to advocate for ourselves and our self-care. Boundaries create a safe space – emotionally, cognitively, physically – and empower us to make healthy choices.

Many people think of boundaries as a physical or temporal boundary: I’m not going to that event, I’m not willing to drive four hours to Aunt Jean’s for that holiday party, or I need to be in bed by 11 o’clock. But emotional boundaries are just as important – whether that means topics and conversations that make us uncomfortable or people who tend to trigger us. There are also cognitive boundaries, where we recognize there are certain patterns in our own thinking that don’t always serve us well.

The truth is there is no rule that says we must put ourselves in a situation that is not good for us, and the holiday season is no exception. Practicing self-care means that we have a right and even a responsibility to consider whether participating in certain activities will bring us joy or leave us emotionally drained.

Here are a few strategies to help navigate the holidays:

Suggest a get-together after the holidays

There’s a lot happening this time of year and only a short amount of time to “get it all done.” People often feel uncomfortable saying no. There is pressure to participate and a sense that not doing so will appear selfish or be hurtful to family, friends, and colleagues. I recommend structuring the holidays to suit your own schedule. Suggest to people that, instead of cramming something in, you get together when there is less hustle and bustle and really enjoy each other’s company. Instead of turning them away, you are carving out quality time expressly for them.

Role play how to deal with a problem family member

Let’s face it – some relationships are just not good for you, and it’s not your responsibility to make them okay. Here, I think the first step is to talk to the supportive individuals in your life – people in the rooms, sponsors, a therapist, a partner or your best friend. Use them as a sounding board to establish an appropriate boundary, whether that is avoiding the situation entirely or making it clear in advance that you will not discuss specific topics or engage in certain behaviors (for example, the annual game of beer pong). Role play what you might say and how you will handle a confrontational response. Addressing these issues and practicing the conversation in advance will help you feel grounded and give you strength to stick with your plan.

Know what you want, and why you want it

Even if another family member asks you to “make an exception this time” or attempts to make you feel guilty, I encourage you to maintain your boundary. It’s important to understand that setting a boundary is about prioritizing your wellbeing and not about hurting others.

Be gentle but firm in dealing with a loved one with a substance problem

If you have a friend or loved one struggling with substance use, it’s important to establish appropriate behavior as a boundary beforehand. Make them aware that if they can’t commit to not using substances during the holiday get together, then you prefer they don’t participate.

These are never easy conversations, but the holidays are an opportunity to set limits. Talking in advance can help set the stage: “I don’t like the way you drink when you come for the holidays. Your behavior makes me uncomfortable. I’m not going to have alcohol at my home or I’m going to ask you not to drink while you’re there. If you use, I’m going to ask somebody to take you home.”

If they choose not to come because they can’t drink or use drugs, or they come and are asked to leave because of problem behavior, that could become part of a follow-up conversation. “You’re saying this isn’t a problem, but I asked you not to drink and you either chose not to come to the event or you came, and you drank anyway. Is it possible your substance use is more of a problem than you realized, would you like to talk about it, or would you feel more comfortable with me helping you find someone else to speak to about it?”

If in recovery, map your strategy ahead of time

I recently heard of a situation where the husband is in early recovery and he and his wife will host the holidays this year, with a large extended family. They were struggling with how to set expectations and boundaries in advance. They decided to make it clear to everyone that they will not have any alcohol at their home. They went as far as saying that if anyone brings alcohol, they will not serve it.

Whatever the scenario, communication and preparation during the holiday season is essential. The best approach is to set boundaries ahead of time. This manages expectations for all involved. Boundaries are not always easy, but you may find that many people are supportive. Some might not understand, and we must reconcile ourselves to that. Trying to please everyone at the expense of yourself is a recipe for disaster. The goal is to eliminate unnecessary stress, anxiety and emotional pain and give yourself the gift of a truly happy and healthy holiday season.

A man and a woman leaning on each other

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