Setting Healthy Boundaries for the Holidays

Follow these tips for setting healthy boundaries during this holiday season.

I’m ashamed to admit that the most wonderful time of the year can bring out the worst in me. 

The endless parties and other social commitments. The perpetual shopping. The hours spent wrapping gifts and addressing envelopes. It’s all a little crazy-making if I’m not careful. It’s all enough to make me lose focus on the heart and soul of the matter, to feel like a snowflake tossed around on an icy wind — wild and out of control. 

But the holidays don’t have to bring out the worst in us. Even if you’ve got the most demanding family, the most robust social calendar, or the longest Christmas card list, taking the right approach to this time of year can allow you to thrive. It all starts with the practice of setting and maintaining healthy boundaries, which is the best gift we can give ourselves and our loved ones this holiday season. Here are some tips to help you put this practice in place.

Start with the end in mind

The first boundaries to set are around your own expectations. Even before the holidays arrive, it’s important to take some time to reflect and prepare for the coming months of shopping, social gatherings, and family interactions. Take an afternoon to sit with the following questions so that instead of finding yourself wrung out and exhausted come January, you can enter the new year content and refreshed:

  • What do you want the holidays to look/feel/sound/taste/smell like?
  • What do you need in order to enjoy this season fully? 
  • How much money can you reasonably spend without causing financial stress and/or creating debt? 
  • What events are you willing to forgo to create a more manageable social schedule? Which are non-negotiable?
  • How do you want to feel, overall, on January 1st? What steps will help you achieve this?

These questions are just a starting point, but they will help you explore your goals. This will help you shape some boundaries for yourself, and make some of the choices to achieve them.

Be clear with your limits, but compassionate in your communication 

Emotions tend to run high during the holidays, and families often fall into a scarcity mindset when it comes to sharing time and attention. You know how it goes. One side of the family gets Thanksgiving, and suddenly they’re bargaining for you to stay the whole week. Or you’re spreading yourself thin in a blended family with a lot of moving parts. Everyone is asking for more, more, more — more of your time, more of your presence, more of your energy than you can possibly give. 

Revisit your reflections from earlier in the season. Ask the Holy Spirit to help you find words to speak that will bear fruit in your relationships. Ask yourself what you can reasonably commit to and then offer a compromise in a clear but compassionate way.

A simple way to do this is to replace words like “but” or “however” with “and” or “at the same time.” For example, “I know how important it is to you that the whole family spends Christmas together. At the same time, it’s important to us that we establish our own traditions. How about we come to celebrate with you over a long weekend for New Year’s?” 

Will setting boundaries create some friction in your relationships? Probably. But setting such limits is a necessity for your well-being, and it also helps the other party understand your needs. It may be difficult to set these limits, but when next year’s holidays roll around, everyone will know what to expect and how best to accommodate one another.

Use your senses to check in regularly with your boundaries

With boundaries, you can’t set ’em and forget ’em like a crockpot. They require time, attention, and regular adjustments. While setting and maintaining clear boundaries definitely takes more time and energy on the front end, what it pays off in peace of mind will be worth it. 

Using our senses as a guide is an excellent way to ground ourselves when we notice our minds — and schedules — are spinning out of control. Say you want a holiday season that tastes spicy and sweet, feels like a warm cashmere blanket, and sounds like friendly laughter bubbling up like champagne. If you realize one afternoon that it looks like the inside of your SUV, smells like day-old coffee, and sounds like road rage, it’s time to take a breath. Slow down, step away, and send up a quick “Jesus, take the wheel” prayer in order to check in on your boundaries. 

The senses are the means by which we experience the world. Use them to check in and trust what they are telling you when your mind’s going too fast. If you establish your sensory goals for the season, as we discussed earlier, you’ll know if you’re on the right track — or veering into a snowdrift.

Conclusion: Set boundaries and thrive during the holidays

This holiday season can be more restorative and more fulfilling if we are willing to do the hard work of setting boundaries with ourselves and our loved ones. The fruit of this work will be that it prevents resentment, which will lead to a more peaceful season.  

More than that, though, boundaries give us healthy expectations to build on for holiday seasons to come — for us and for those we care about. With this in mind, we can be confident that we’re giving the gift that means more than anything we could bring home from a store: our best and most present selves.

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