The holidays offer a great opportunity to connect and spend time with your loved ones. But if you’re a person that struggles to set healthy boundaries, all of that quality time with your nearest and dearest can feel stressful and overwhelming.
Setting boundaries with your friends, family, and loved ones is a must if you want to emerge from the holiday season feeling happy, healthy, and sane. But how, exactly, do you do that?
What are healthy boundaries—and why are they so important during the holiday season?
“Healthy boundaries are limits or rules that people set to maintain their physical and mental health,” says Kristin Papa, licensed clinical social worker, certified health and wellbeing coach, and founder of Living Openhearted Therapy + Wellness.
Not only do healthy boundaries help you maintain your physical and mental health, but when you’re clear on them, it can lead to better, healthier relationships. “The goal with boundaries is to essentially have more peace within our relationships by honoring what we need—and explicitly communicating those needs,” says Houston-based psychotherapist Abby Wilson.
“When we’re honoring our boundaries, we’re setting the stage for the best possible outcomes,” says Randi Buckley, creator of online course Healthy Boundaries for Kind People. “We remove lots of guessing games, mind-reading, assumptions, and resentment.”
And while setting them both for yourself and your relationships is important year-round, it’s particularly important during the holiday season, when not only are stress and emotions running high, but when you’re generally spending more time with the people that you love—which brings more opportunities for conflict.
“The holidays are typically a time where emotions are very heightened,” says Wilson. “We might be in a more emotionally distressed state…so in order for us to maintain a more balanced level, we need to be able to communicate our boundaries to take care of ourselves over the holidays.”
“The holidays usually bring certain traditions and expectations by loved ones, which add another layer of complexity and difficulty to setting and maintaining healthy boundaries,” says Papa. “In addition, we tend to have an increase in family gatherings and as a result there are more opportunities for our boundaries to be pushed by others.”
Settle on your boundaries before the holidays begin…
“Decide in advance what you want your boundaries to look like this holiday season,” says Papa.
“Think ahead of time about what you might need to feel more balanced,” says Wilson. “[For example], do you do well with alone time? Do you do well with more structure? Do you want to limit your alcohol consumption? Think about what you might need so you can go into the situation with clarity.”
Defining what “healthy boundaries” means to you before the holiday season truly kicks off will give you time to think about how you want to communicate those boundaries—and how you want to uphold them.
…and communicate those boundaries in advance
Once you know the boundaries you want to set for the holidays (for example, that you won’t be buying anyone gifts, that you’re limiting the number of social gatherings you’ll be attending, or that you are reserving Christmas Eve for immediate family members), make sure to loop your loved ones in.
“Everyone appreciates a heads up—and they especially appreciate when it’s communicated respectfully,” says Buckley. “The advance notice will help people adjust their expectations and plans.”
In addition to communicating your boundaries in advance, you also want to think about how you decide to communicate those boundaries. “We tend to either under-communicate our boundaries or over-communicate them in ways that feel heavy-handed,” says Buckley. “This often comes out of fear of offending, hurting feelings, not thinking they’ll understand, or feeling a lack of skill in communication.”
But there’s no need to overcomplicate things! “Be direct and remind yourself that you do not have to apologize for setting a boundary,” says Wilson.
Reframe how you look at boundary setting
If you’re feeling stressed or worried about setting boundaries with your loved ones over the holidays, it may be because you’re looking at them as a bad thing. But the truth is, they “are not punishments—for yourself or others,” says Buckley.
Instead, try reframing how you think about them—and try to look at setting them as an act of love (or, in keeping with the holiday theme, a gift you’re giving your friends and family). “When we establish and cultivate our boundaries with loved ones, we’re essentially saying, ‘Hey, I want to have the best possible experience and version of me, and these boundaries support and nurture that,’” says Buckley. “They serve as a guide for everyone, including yourself, to get the best possible outcome. When we understand that boundaries are an act of kindness, they also become a gift.”
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