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Holiday Boundaries

We’ve all been there.

The holiday chore that makes you tired just thinking about it. The invite that elicits a groan. The gift you don’t know that you’ll be able to get. Bells are ringing, but you’re not feeling like an angel and you definitely aren’t getting wings.

That feeling is communicating something, and it might be a warning that your boundaries are in jeopardy.

Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend describe boundaries as establishing the “separateness” needed to be your unique self. Boundaries encompass your physical, mental, and emotional self as well as your abilities, limits, and choices. These personal aspects are yours to manage and control. Well-defined boundaries can lead to a balanced life with meaningful activities and relationships.

Boundaries can be difficult to protect, however, in the face of our loved ones' expectations. We want our family and friends to be as happy as they can be, and cultural messaging this time of year would have everyone believe that we must travel far (uphill both ways), cook beautifully, and smile as much as possible.

[Woman in a sweater smiling, image reads, “Reveler in picture may be more frustrated than she appears.”]
[Smiling woman in a colorful sweater, image reads, “Reveler in picture may be more frustrated than she appears.”]

The great thing about boundaries, however, is that they afford freedom to everyone involved.

As the boundary-setter, you are free to accept only those tasks and obligations that fit within your values, abilities, and limits. You no longer blame your burnout or resentment on other people or entities. You take responsibility for your actions as you either protect or neglect your boundaries. Knowing where your values lie allows you to invest your energy accordingly. Your behaviors and choices lead to a more authentic life. You feel more like you.

And when you let your loved one know that their request will, unfortunately, not be possible, they have the opportunity to get their needs met in another way. They are not left guessing what you will do or how you are feeling. They won’t feel confused when your resentment shows through because you won’t be agreeing to their requests begrudgingly. Your loved ones will learn to adapt as you lovingly protect your boundaries. They will meet the authentic you.

A few strategies as you consider boundaries this holiday:

  • Use “I” Statements. Psychologist Thomas Gordon developed “I” Statements in his work with married couples. The statement is formed as follows: I feel/am [your feeling] when [behavior or choice being addressed] because [the way it affects you or what you prefer to happen]. “I” Statements communicate conflict without blaming the other person.

  • Prepare for surprise and frustration. Perhaps you’ve decided that behaviors you tolerated in the past are no longer acceptable. You don’t have to forgo your comfort just because something has “always been done that way.” Strategizing for possible pushback can help you assist others in understanding your need. Try not to catastrophize; your loved ones desire a healthy relationship with you.

  • Ground yourself. Accept that you cannot ruin anyone’s holiday. It’s a big season with lots of opportunities for joy. Your loved ones have the responsibility to manage their expectations with consideration for your boundaries.

Boundary protection during the holidays can be hindered by internalized cultural expectations. The holidays may trigger clinical depression as unusual stressors, familial losses, disappointments, or other issues arise. And the shorter days of Fall and Winter can cause Seasonal Affective Disorder, known in the DSM-5 as Major Depressive Disorder in a Seasonal Pattern.

You are the expert on your experience, yet sorting out where your boundaries lie can be daunting. Talking with a therapist can help you work through your boundaries this holiday and identify what triggers might be affecting your mood. Please reach out if we can assist you.


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