The holidays are a good time to set boundaries. That’s because there are a lot more demands coming from all directions, said Meredith Janson, MA, LPC, a relationship expert and therapist in private practice in Washington, D.C. This might include everything from buying gifts and sending cards to traveling and attending get-togethers to hosting people — just to name a few.
By setting boundaries, you’re able to focus on the real meaning of the holidays: gratitude, spiritual traditions and family togetherness, Janson said.
A boundary is simply a “dividing line,” she said. “In psychological terms, it’s a catch-phrase meaning setting limits or asserting your thoughts, feelings, and needs even when these are in opposition to the person with whom you’re interacting.”
Below, Janson shared five tips for setting boundaries during the holidays (which include setting boundaries with yourself).
Become more self-aware.
Setting boundaries starts with self-awareness. This requires checking in with yourself every day, said Janson, who specializes in working with couples and families. It requires “having a clear sense of whether you want to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the invitations, requests or even unspoken expectations coming from other people in your life.”
According to Janson, it’s important to know your thoughts, feelings and desires; what inspires you; what brings you joy; the significant people in your life; your biggest priorities; and how you want to spend your time.
“Without this internal compass, you’re like a boat in a river, getting pulled along by the current, without a clear sense of your own direction.”
Janson suggested having a journal for recording your body sensations, thoughts and feelings. During the holiday season, carve out 5 minutes each day to tune into yourself. For instance, she said, you might sit in a quiet spot, play calming music and write down your responses to these questions: “What am I feeling in my body right now? Any physical complaints or sensations that I’m aware of? What thoughts are running through my mind? What emotions am I feeling?”
Honor your needs.
For many people the holidays are a difficult time because they’re a painful reminder of a loved one’s absence (and it doesn’t matter how many years it’s been since they’ve passed away). If you’re feeling sad and overwhelmed, let yourself feel these feelings, Janson said. Honor your need to be with others, to be alone or to skip the holiday season altogether.
For instance, one of Janson’s clients lost her mother over the summer. During the holidays, she declined every party invitation and instead spent Christmas day watching movies at home. She decided to boycott Christmas that year, Janson said.
“…I actually think this can be a better coping strategy than painting a smile on your face and going to parties at a time when you’re hurting inside.” Plus by acknowledging your feelings, “you’re more likely to heal than if you ignore the feelings and ‘push through’ at this time of year.”
Set boundaries with yourself.
If you have too many things going on, look for ways to simplify this year, such as paring down invitations, cooking and shopping, Janson said. “The less you commit to doing, the more you will actually enjoy.”
This also means tuning out external messages. “You can’t help but be influenced by all the marketing ads of families surrounded with tons of presents, wearing new coordinating pajamas, eating lavish feasts.” Even parents can go overboard with making Pinterest-worthy gifts for students and teachers, she said.
Again, the fewer things on your plate, the less you’ll be running around and feeling frantic, she said. And the more time you can spend relaxing with your loved ones and savoring the spirit of the holiday season.
Be calm and clear when setting boundaries.
For instance, another client of Janson’s is bringing her serous boyfriend home for the holidays for the first time. During a telephone conversation, her mom started being critical toward her boyfriend.
Janson’s client said: “Mom, if you want to engage in this kind of conversation, you’ll have to do so without me. I’m not talking about this with you.” Her mom honored this request, and they talked about other topics.
If a loved one is making remarks about your eating, you might simply say: “I’d prefer you not comment on my eating habits.”
Sometimes, it helps to remove yourself from the situation altogether. For instance, you might take a walk in the neighborhood, Janson said.
(For more on navigating family issues during the holidays, check out this post.)
Set boundaries around travel and gatherings.
If you feel overwhelmed, know that your plans can always be tweaked, and everything is an option. For instance, if your family lives far away, and you have small kids, ask your parents to visit instead of enduring a long plane ride, Janson said. Or if you’re definitely traveling, instead of stopping by everyone’s homes, suggest doing a potluck. This way “everyone travels to see you in one location.”
What is currently stressing you out about your travel plans or about attending gatherings? Consider what changes you can make to help you reduce your stress and enjoy the holidays.
Because the holidays can be whatever you want them to be.