If you have some anxiety about the upcoming holidays, it’s simple: you need boundaries.
With holiday boundaries, you can navigate complicated family relationships and situations without defaulting to your typical response. Whether it’s handling divisive political conversations, being treated like you’re twelve, or cohabitating with your in-laws for the week, boundaries are there to help.
In this article, I’ll explain why holiday boundaries are important, types of boundaries, and how to set them so you feel more prepared for an often triggering time of year: the holidays.
Why boundaries are important all year round
Like I’ve mentioned, boundaries are the best way to deal with the holidays since it’s a triggering time for many people. But boundaries are important all the time! Here’s why.
First and foremost, boundaries are about protecting yourself. We all get triggered now and then, but there’s something about our family that really hits a nerve. With boundaries, we can preempt situations and conversations that upset us, which allows us to react to (or avoid altogether) triggering situations as our best selves.
Improve your relationships
Some people may think that you’re “selfish” for setting boundaries during the holidays. These people are the ones that need the strictest boundaries, since they’re often the ones that push us outside of our comfort zones.
If you need to hear it today, here it is: it’s okay, and sometimes necessary, to be “selfish.” In fact, boundaries actually lead to the highest quality relationships. We can’t expect friends and family to read our minds–it’s our responsibility to tell them our limits. Your family and friends may surprise you! They may be grateful that you told them what you need.
If you’re a chronic people-pleaser who regularly struggles with boundaries, I highly recommend reading my list of people-pleasing affirmations. These are great to have on hand during the holidays.
Types of boundaries to set during the holidays
Before we get into how to set boundaries during the holidays, it’s important to know the types of boundaries available to you. When reading through these, I recommend brainstorming potential boundaries for yourself in each category.
Physical boundaries are boundaries around your body and physical space.
For example, you might not want to hug everyone. Whether it’s that one creepy uncle or a third cousin you’re meeting for the first time, you could establish the boundary of not hugging everyone that you’re expected to by sticking out your hand for a friendly handshake instead.
Sexual boundaries are boundaries around sex.
Maybe you’re bringing your significant other home for the holidays. Your partner may want to have sex while staying at your parents’ house, but you are uncomfortable with physical intimacy in your parents’ home. Telling your partner “no” to sex while staying with your parents is an example of a sexual boundary.
Emotional or mental boundaries
Emotional or mental boundaries are boundaries that protect your thoughts and emotions.
For example, a family member may ask you why you’re single every Thanksgiving. Those types of questions can hurt, even if your family member means well. Shutting down conversations about your dating life would be a boundary for your mental and emotional health.
Spiritual or religious boundaries
Spiritual or religious boundaries are boundaries around religion and spirituality.
Your family may be devout church, mosque, temple (or somewhere else) goers. If you are no longer religious, you may set a boundary around attending a religious service (especially if that place is triggering for you). You can also decide to not participate in prayer by leaving the room or not closing your eyes–whatever makes you more comfortable.
Financial and material boundaries
Financial and material boundaries are boundaries around your finances and material goods.
You may feel pressured to buy presents for every member of your family. If you don’t want to (or can’t) expend the financial resources to do so, you can set a boundary around giving presents to your family. In some cases, a financial/material boundary may not be attending your family’s holiday gathering at all if purchasing plane tickets is not financially feasible for you.
Time boundaries are boundaries around your time.
For example, you may feel pressured to spend every waking minute of the holiday with your family. If that exhausts you, taking time for yourself to recharge and get some space would be setting a time boundary. You could also leave the house to go out with friends or take a long walk by yourself.
How to set boundaries during the holidays
On to the good stuff! Here’s how to set boundaries during the holidays.
Step 1: Identify triggering points of discomfort, violation, or exhaustion
Reflect back on previous holidays. What were some things that made you feel uncomfortable, violated, triggered, or exhausted?
Let’s use two examples:
- Your parent (or an aunt, uncle, etc.) makes comments about your weight. Your mom’s comments make you feel violated and triggered.
- You feel pressured to participate in family traditions, like running a 5k the morning after Thanksgiving. Running the race (and feeling pressured to) makes you feel uncomfortable, not to mention exhausted after crossing the finish line.
To best prepare for setting your holiday boundaries, I recommend journaling about holiday triggers to get your thoughts out on paper. The more prepared you are with your trigger points, the better you’ll fare over the holidays.
Step 2: Design the holiday boundary
Making your plan first is crucial to your boundary-setting success. Without designing your boundaries first, you may feel yourself defaulting back to how you used to react.
Let’s return to our two examples.
- When your parent (or aunt, or uncle, etc.) makes comments about your weight, you plan on stopping the conversation in its tracks. So you prepare for that tense moment by planning to say: “Can we change the subject? I’d rather not talk about this. How has work been?”
- When your family pings the group chat about registering for the 5k, have your text message ready. “Hey everybody, I’m not going to run the race the year. I’ll be on the sidelines cheering you on!” Or, maybe you’d just rather be home with a cup of coffee getting some goddamn peace and quiet–that is a totally reasonable boundary to set too! In that case, “I’m going to take the morning to rest up a bit-I need to take advantage of my vacation days and sleep in. Have fun!”
I recommend brainstorming potential boundaries like these ones via journaling or discussing with a loved one.
Step 3: Set the boundary
Ready, set… set! It’s time to set your holiday boundary in the real world.
Hopefully you feel a bit more confident after designing your boundary, but if you’re new to boundaries, the moment you set your boundary can be nerve-wracking. This might be the first time that you’ve stood up to that person!
Take deep breaths, and be respectful. You’re asking for respect, so the other person should get respect too. Remember that the goal for boundaries is peaceful resolution to an often tense (or explosive) situation; if you bring a peaceful and respectful energy, your friends and family will be more likely to heed your request.
Step 4: Reset the boundary
Despite your best efforts, you’ll likely have to set your boundary multiple times.
There are two situations in which you’ll have to reset your boundary: people forgetting, or people not listening.
In the case of people forgetting, remember that they’ve been doing the same thing for years. Your boundary is new to them, so give them a little grace if they forget.
Let’s reset the boundaries for someone forgetting with our two examples.
- Your parent (or aunt, uncle, etc.) makes a comment about food, exercise, or your weight again. Say, “Maybe you forgot, but I don’t want to talk about that stuff. What else can we talk about?”
- Your sibling (or cousin, etc.) asks you if you’ve registered for the race yet. You could say “Didn’t you hear? I’ve chosen not to participate this year.”
But other times, people don’t adhere to your holiday boundary setting because they don’t like it. They might try to push you on it to see if you’ll uphold your boundary. In that case, you’ll need to set the boundary again and explain what will happen if they continue to disrespect your boundary.
Let’s go back to our example.
- Your parent (or aunt, uncle, etc.) insists on talking about your weight. In that case, be stricter and say, “Like I’ve said, I’m not talking about this with you. If we don’t change the subject, I’m going to go to my room for a while.”
- Your sibling (or cousin, etc.) pressures and guilts you about entering into the race, saying “how much fun it will be” and “we only do this once a year.” Say, “I’m not participating this year, so please drop it. I don’t want to lose time with you over the holiday, but if you don’t stop pressuring me, I may need to take some space from you.”
If you want to keep the peace as much as possible, you can also try out some less confrontational boundary phrases. I love the phrases from Kami Orange, a boundaries coach (check out her TikTok channel).
Here’s one I love.
Stricter exchanges like these may be enough to uphold the boundary. But in other cases, you may need to enact your back up plan.
Step 5: Have a back-up plan for when the boundary is still not respected
When in doubt, follow up on the ultimate holiday boundaries back-up plan: leaving.
If your boundary is not being respected, you always have the right to excuse yourself from the situation. You do not have to tolerate anything–you are an autonomous human being who deserves respect. So if you’re not getting the response you asked for, go to your room, go out with friends, take a walk, or if it’s bad enough, reschedule your plane ticket home.
We love boundaries!
At Best Therapists, we are huge advocates of protecting our mental health. Setting boundaries is an excellent step, but getting a therapist to help you with boundaries is even better 🙂
Consult with some of our vetted therapists who can help you with boundary setting during the holidays!