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Surviving Family Holidays: A Guide for More Boundaries

It’s that time of year again! Cooler weather (hopefully), seasonal treats, and family gatherings. No matter how you align yourself culturally or religiously with November and December often comes family obligations and expectations. If you’re like me this might be your favorite time of year, while also one of the most stressful times of the year. How does one navigate the minefield of expectancy that comes with jolly good fun? Boundaries.

I am lucky that I have a pretty good relationship with my family. Unfortunately, that has not always been the case and for many, the holiday season can appear alongside grief, frustration, and anxiety. I have been a witness to all sorts of hand-wringing at the thought of dinners and parties with families of origin, in-laws, and the like at this time of year. My response is nearly always some version of the boundary conversation. I see often with my clients the pitfall of placing the needs and wishes of others above those of our own. For example, “if I don’t attend this holiday party so-and-so will be disappointed” or “I always cook this holiday meal, people will be upset if I don’t”.

The unfortunate side effect of this sort of thinking is that while everyone else seems to get their way, we are left feeling burned out, underappreciated, used, or isolated. All of which lead to resentment and relational problems down the line. An important rule of thumb to keep in mind when thinking of boundaries is, this boundary protects the relationship and therefore benefits everyone involved. So what might healthy boundaries look like for the holidays? These will vary from person to person but here are a few to keep in mind.

If I can’t be nice, I can’t attend

Hear me out, we can all learn to grow in compassion, empathy, and effective communication. That being said, there are some people who I’m simply not meant to be in a relationship with. This may extend to family, coworkers, or whomever. I know the people that I have the hardest time engaging with. Even if I am able to be cordial I am very aware that I will not enjoy myself at functions with them and others may feel tense or uncomfortable being around the awkward situation. When certain functions and events I’m invited to require interaction with these people I ask myself, how important is it? A wedding of someone I care about? I suck it up. Another white elephant party? I graciously thank the host for the invitation and respond that I am unfortunately able to attend. This is a boundary around my time and emotional energy.

Have an exit strategy

There may be events I just don’t feel able to recuse myself from. In these instances, I am sure to have my exit strategy well arranged in advance. I take my own car so as to have transportation away, and I make my departure time well known. For example, “Thanks so much for having me! I do want to let you know I’m only going to be able to stay an hour due to a prior engagement”. When the time comes I take my exit strategy and make my way somewhere enjoyable for some self-care.

Communicate needs and expectations clearly

I am a poor cook. This is not a secret, in fact, I can’t imagine my family would ever ask me to cook a holiday meal. That being said, I do host my share of gatherings and am always careful to clarify my needs and expectations ahead of time. Sometimes this looks like including the need to bring a dish on the invitation and then confirm with folks that they will bring something the day prior. Other times this looks like stating boundaries of time of arrival and departure or activities to be participated in. Whatever the case may be it’s best for me to clarify with people what I’m wanting and needing out of an experience ahead of time. I can’t very well expect people to meet my needs if they are not communicated.

The holidays can be hard and that’s ok. It can be helpful leading into this season to consider what I need and communicate that with those I’m closest to. Whatever your experience of this time of year may be, know that you do not have to go through it alone. Always feel free to reach out if you’re struggling!

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