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Personal boundaries are always important, and we rarely feel their importance more than around the holiday season. The holidays can be a season full of family and friends. Usually the family reunions, big get-togethers, shared meals, shared homes… on to packed schedules, little alone time, lots of shared space. If that is what your holidays tend to look like, they can sound like a blast or a nightmare; and often, it ends up being somewhere in between.

A Different Option

It is easy to look at upcoming holidays and see two options: 1) avoid the family activities altogether, or 2) attend the events and have a miserable time. While those are certainly both options, I think there’s one more that doesn’t involve being miserable and also allows you to show up for your family and friends. The third option is, go into the holidays having set some healthy boundaries.

Consider Setting Boundaries

Relationally and emotionally speaking, avoiding all contact with family or friends might not be your best option. Practically speaking, it might not be feasible for you to avoid it all anyway! So, how can we show up to that family dinner or work party and maintain a sense of calm or joy or evenness or patience, even when the conflict or stress begins to arise? I think the answer lies in setting healthy boundaries, and here are a couple of ideas to help you brainstorm about what boundaries might be helpful for you this season.

Consider Your Goals and Expectations

While you don’t necessarily want to assume that the worst will happen, it can be a good idea to think about your expectations for whatever event or interaction you are anticipating. If your parents have always made passive aggressive comments about your family planning, or if your brother always picks on your appearance, you likely don’t want to go in to this holiday season thinking that “they have changed” or that “finally you will have a nice Christmas dinner without arguments”. Those things are possible, sure. But they may not be very likely. Set your expectations realistically, so that you are not caught off guard if things turn a little sour.  

Similarly, consider your goals for that event or interaction, keeping in mind that you only have control of yourself. Is your goal to have a great time with no arguing? That would be great! But is it realistic? Not exactly. That goal is a bit vague (what does a great time mean for you?) and requires everyone’s cooperation. Your goal could be that you will not engage in arguing, but you can’t control whether or not others do.

Prepare & Practice

Part of preparing and practicing goes hand in hand with setting appropriate expectations and goals, but it can go even further. I’d suggest starting with the expectations and goals, then making sure you have a plan for how to respond to whatever comments come.

Maybe there is a person at work who always incites conflict. Again, you cannot control anyone but yourself, so recognize and acknowledge that for starters. Then you can plan for how you’d like to interact or not interact with that coworker. You can plan to only talk to this person if you’re in a group, or plan to step away to get a drink as soon as a certain topic comes up.

Know Your Limits

Again, it might not be practical or helpful to just avoid the parties or meals. But your health, emotionally and otherwise, is important. If you know that a certain family member is going to push all of your buttons and make you furious, remind yourself that you don’t have to talk to them for the whole night, or stay at the party the whole time. Allow yourself to set limits on how long you interact with a person or how long you stay at a get-together, or even where you sit at the family table. Think about what it feels like when you are getting too close to the edge, too frustrated or too upset, and flag those feelings; set a limit for yourself, that when you start to feel that way, you will get up and go to the bathroom, do some deep breathing, find a safe person to talk to, take a walk, or leave the event altogether. Continue to pay attention to what you’re feeling, notice if/when you are getting too worked up, and follow through with your plan.

Practice Self-Care

All of the above fall under “self-care”. Be intentional about those things, and be intentional about how you spend your free time. It’s a good idea to schedule time for yourself, particularly before/after stressful events, when you can relax or spend time doing something you love. Take a look at our other self-care posts for more ideas!

If you find yourself dreading the holidays or having a hard time with them in general, know that you are not alone. The holidays can be tough for a myriad of reasons. If you’re wanting some extra support, consider giving one of our counselors a call; we would love to explore this with you.

Written by therapist Clair Miller

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