I love the holidays. I eagerly anticipate the first snowfall, adore the scent of pine, and watch It’s A Wonderful Life every year without fail.
That said, even the merriest among us know that the holidays can be emotionally, physically, and psychologically taxing. In addition to buying gifts, negotiating travel plans, and shuttling from gathering to gathering, many of us spend extended time with our families—and every family, no matter how loving, has its fair share of challenges.
When these difficult family dynamics combine with holiday-season stress, we may find ourselves at a crossroads. Do we burn out, freak out, and spend the holidays in a state of discomfort? Or do we set boundaries around our time, space, and energy?
Setting Boundaries With Family Members
For many of us, breaking the people-pleasing pattern and setting boundaries poses a unique challenge. Personally, I was taught that my value lay in how much I gave, and so speaking up for myself—or setting limits on my giving—at first felt mean and inconsiderate.
Setting boundaries among family members can be doubly challenging. For years, we may have felt burdened by unspoken expectations that have made it hard to put our own needs first.
For most of my life, I struggled to set boundaries with my parents because they raised me, fed me, clothed me, and supported me financially until I reached adulthood. At first, it was hard to instate boundaries because I felt I owed them everything.
Likewise, many parents would leap out in front of a train for their kids, and many siblings would go to great lengths to keep one another safe and happy. As a parent or sibling, you may feel obligated to offer your time, money, space, or energy without limitation.
Boundaries illuminate and challenge these unspoken expectations. Whereas before you may have been the resident people-pleaser or over-giver, setting boundaries changes your role in your family system. They enable you to prioritize your own needs and give at a sustainable rate.
Boundaries can protect your material possessions, your emotions, your physical space, or your spiritual beliefs. They are not “mean.” They simply draw a line between what belongs to you and what belongs to others.
As I prepare to have difficult conversations about boundaries, I like to keep these four key principles in mind:
When we refuse to set a boundary, we prioritize other people’s comfort over our own needs. Setting boundaries is a courageous act of putting ourselves first. It’s a great way to break the people-pleasing habit and practice the art of self-care and verbal self-defense.
Difficult honesty is not unkindness. It’s not mean to stand up for yourself. It’s actually the most truthful and authentic way to interact with others.
You can manage your boundaries or manage other people’s feelings, but you can’t do both. The bottom line is, your boundaries might make people feel frustrated or resentful. That burden is not yours to bear.
Other people are not mind-readers. Don’t expect them to be. There is no shame in directly asking for your feelings to be acknowledged or your needs to be met. Even our loved ones need ongoing instruction in how to care for us because we are always changing—as are our needs and boundaries.
This holiday season, practice setting boundaries in your family to give yourself the gift of feeling joyful, peaceful, and empowered. Here are some common holiday scenarios in which boundaries might come in handy:
Example #1: It’s okay not to go home for the holidays.
Maybe your adult children have finally fled the nest and you want to spend the holiday in Cancun with your spouse. Maybe you want to visit your fiancé’s family instead of your own. Maybe home is a toxic environment and you’d prefer to stay home and enjoy the company of your dog, Bobo.
You are not selfish for wanting to spend the holidays in the way you’d like. You are allowed to have desires that differ from your parents’ or siblings’. You are allowed to have a different understanding of what makes the “perfect” holiday.
It can be tough to buck traditions that have been in your family for decades. Sometimes, finding the right language is the hardest part.
My favorite way to communicate a boundary is the “I-statement” approach developed by clinical psychologist Thomas Gordon in 1970. It centers your feelings and experiences, reduces the likelihood of defensiveness in the listener, and offers concrete suggestions for change.
Here’s how it works:
- I feel _________________________________________.
- When you _____________________________________.
- Because _______________________________________.
- I need ________________________________________.
In the case offered above, you might try this: “I feel sad and overwhelmed when I come home for Christmas because there’s a lot of unresolved tension in our family. I need to spend a peaceful Christmas on my own this year.”
Example #2: It’s okay to need a break if you’re hosting.
Holiday hosting is no small feat. In my extended family, Christmas Eve was always a bonanza, complete with platters of hors d’oeuvres, mountains of gifts, and screaming kiddos hopped up on Neapolitan cookies. My grandma, our gracious hostess, would start preparing the moment summer vacation was over. It was a big deal.
Whether you’re hosting the extended family for one evening or hosting your kids for two weeks, you are offering your time, space, and energy in a big way. It’s taxing for your nervous system and your body, and it’s okay to take a break. “Taking a break” might mean spending a day by yourself, enjoying an afternoon nap, or outsourcing host responsibilities for an hour in the midst of the party.
Try this: I feel stressed when I host the family for Christmas Eve because it’s a ton of work to cook the food, mingle with guests, and clean up afterwards. I need someone to help me clean up when the guests start to leave.
Example #3: It’s okay to need alone time if you’re visiting.
Visiting entails fewer responsibilities than hosting, but it’s not always a walk in the park. As a visitor, you’re out of your comfort zone. You’re in a new environment, away from your routines and creature comforts. Even if you haven’t seen the folks you’re mingling with in months or years, it’s perfectly normal to take some time to be alone.
Try this: I feel overwhelmed by the non-stop festivities when I visit for Christmas because I’m used to having a lot of time to myself at home. I need one day where I can be alone so I can rest and recharge.
Example #4: It’s okay to disengage in controversial conversations.
Despite the litany of horror stories that illustrate the dangers of talking politics/religion/etc. around the dinner table, some of our loved ones can’t seem to help themselves. I know from personal experience: Some family members get a kick out of instigating uncomfortable conversations.
This year, you don’t have to choose between entering a heated conversation or forcing a chuckle on the sidelines. You can set a boundary that simultaneously protects your values and limits your involvement.
Try this: I feel uncomfortable when you talk about politics over Thanksgiving dinner because it creates an atmosphere of tension. Let’s change the conversation to something less controversial so we can enjoy one another’s company.
Example #5: It’s okay not to be okay with your family’s dynamics.
Every member of every family changes over time. Habits or routines that you loved as a child might not feel comfortable as you get older. Certain family tensions may have worsened as the years have passed.
Bottom line? Just because you accepted these behaviors and dynamics before does not mean you need to accept them now.
Maybe your brother always comments on your weight, and you’d really like him to stop. Maybe your grandmother constantly asks you why you’re going to school for music instead of medicine. Maybe certain family members get really drunk at your annual Christmas party and, this year, you’re not comfortable with them attending.
By addressing these discomforts in a straightforward manner, you can give yourself the gift of prioritizing your own feelings and needs.
But What If They Don’t Like My Boundaries?
The question I get most often is, “Okay, so I set a boundary. But what if they don’t like it? What if they don’t do what I ask?”
Your family members might not like your boundaries. Your boundaries may activate their deepest fears and insecurities, and they might wonder, “Does she still love me? Is he angry? What does this mean for our relationship?”
Your family members may get angry or upset. They may need time to adjust. They may even use guilt in an attempt to make you change your mind.
It’s important to enter these challenging conversations with realistic expectations for how your loved ones may react. Preparing for surprise, anger, or sadness will make it easier to hold firm to your boundary when faced with resistance.
During the conversation, acknowledge that your boundary may be difficult to hear. This helps your loved one feel seen and included in the process.
I also like to offer positive alternatives to the behaviors I’m trying to quelch. I want to make clear to my loved ones that I care about our relationship and I’m willing to work to find ways of interacting that feel good for both of us. For example:
- “I will be staying at a hotel when I come home for Christmas this year. I would love to carve out a day to spend together, just the two of us.”
- “Talking about this topic is difficult for me. Can we change the conversation? I’d love to hear how work’s been going for you.”
- “It’s really important to me that I meet my need for alone time. That said, time with you is really important to me. Can we work together to find a balance that works for both of us?”
Sometimes, no matter how firmly you hold to your boundary, others will be unwilling to change. Perhaps you express that your brother’s toxic behavior is no longer acceptable to you, but he carries on anyhow. Perhaps you explain that you’re no longer willing to host the annual holiday party, but nobody else steps up to volunteer.
You cannot change other people. You only have control over your own reactions and behavior. Sometimes, you may have to choose between tolerating the unacceptable behavior or evacuating the environment (e.g., not attending the family’s holiday gathering, ceasing contact with a family member altogether, etc.)
Though deeply challenging, making the bold decision to evacuate a toxic environment is a phenomenal act of self-care. Organizations like Stand Alone offer support and community to individuals who have had to make that difficult decision, and can be a wonderful resource this time of year.
Remember: you can simultaneously set boundaries and be loving, compassionate, and kind. You can sit with your loved one’s pain, hold space for their reaction, and reiterate how much they mean to you—all while making clear that your boundary is non-negotiable.
It takes a great deal of courage to speak up and alter old ways of relating to others, especially in your family. Every time you set a boundary, you bring your outer world into alignment with your inner needs. It is a gift that only you can give yourself—and a gift unlike any other.