According to clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, PhD, author of Joy From Fear, the holiday season is indeed rife with stressors that can be especially turbulent to navigate without some prior legwork. For starters, returning to a childhood home or to a family's home environment, whether to stay or just for a meal, can cause us to revert back to our former, less mature and healed selves, she says. Maybe your family dinners throughout childhood were marked with comments and opinions about your eating habits, or expectations to overshare about your love life; if you don’t tolerate those interactions anymore, without setting appropriate boundaries, you could face tension.
"For those who grew up without boundaries or with unhealthy boundaries, [your family] will naturally expect you to be the same when you return to that environment," says Dr. Manly. "So if you’ve done self-work and have stronger boundaries, then that may be unfamiliar to the people who will try to get you to behave how you used to."
Feeling like you need to placate or satisfy a friend or family member who isn't aware of your changing habits or behaviors can make things even tougher. Perhaps they're suggesting you go out to a bar for a drink, and you've stopped drinking alcohol recently, or they're pushing you to reveal details about a new partner, and you don't feel comfortable doing so. It's in these tense scenarios where learning how to set and enforce boundaries during the holidays will be essential.
Add in the fact that for many people, the holidays involve convening with people whom you may no longer feel connected to or comfortable with, and boundaries become even more important. While finding ways to feel comfortable in non-hostile environments is certainly a good idea, it is absolutely essential when you're walking into situations that are likely to trigger you, says Dr. Manly.
How to set boundaries during the holidays
Much like setting boundaries during any season, Dr. Manly says the first step is knowing exactly what yours are. They very well may differ from someone else’s, so it’s a good general practice to think about which topics and situations would trigger you or make you sad, anxious, or angry.
Once you've thought about it, she recommends writing a list of topics or situations that could come up either on paper or in a note on your phone; go through and decide how it would feel to discuss each and set your boundaries accordingly—which means getting clear on how you feel comfortable engaging in each instance with yourself first, and then sharing those expectations with others.
Maybe talking about your dating life is no issue for you, but bringing up work can send you spiraling. Your main holiday stressor could be a jam-packed schedule of hometown catch-ups, or a particularly opinionated uncle who starts family fights during the holidays about politics; in these cases, you may focus on getting control of your schedule or decide how much you can engage before you have to tap out of touchy discussions. Perhaps you used to not mind being hugged, but now you’d like people not to touch you—this is another valid boundary to set.
"When you're going into an environment where people don't know you, you'll still need to be very clear on your boundaries at least once."—Carla Marie Manly, PhD, clinical psychologist
With acquaintances or people you're meeting for the first time, it's also important to set and communicate your boundaries so you can feel comfortable in even these types of casual encounters. “When you're going into an environment where people don't know you, you'll still need to be very clear on your boundaries at least once,” emphasizes Dr. Manly. Let’s say your S.O. brings you to their company holiday party, and you don’t especially want to talk about what you do; you may say something like, “I don’t like to bring up work after hours,” if questions about your career come up to send a gentle message to change topics. “If the other person has emotional intelligence, they’ll honor that,” she says.
6 boundary-setting practices to protect your mental health this season
1. Learn your needs for recalibration
One key boundary to set for yourself? Knowing when you need a rest or a reset, and figuring out what small practices help you access calm when you need it most.
“When we know what we need on a mental and emotional and physical level in order to stay balanced, then that helps us enforce our boundaries,” says Dr. Manly. If you need to take a break on a patio or walk around the block in the middle of a family gathering or party, don’t apologize—know that this option is available to you and should be exercised. Don’t be afraid to ask for a glass of water, or excuse yourself to the restroom for a moment of calm, either.
2. Know your time limits
Figure out how long you can be somewhere, whether it’s a party or a hangout at a relative’s house, without feeling drained or on edge. The same goes for engaging in activities at home. Depending on your personality, emotional state, and responsibilities, your needs may differ from those of your friends and family, says Dr. Manly. "Some people are five-hour partygoers, others are three, and some are one," she says. "You get to choose the time you have so your well-being isn't compromised."
Being specific can be really helpful. If the thought of spending all day in a kitchen helping your mom prepare a big meal gives you chills, offer to help for a set number of hours, and then shift to another task, like cleaning the dining area or setting the table. If you've been invited to a party but dread having to stay the whole time, you may say something like, "I'd love to swing by your party for a couple of hours, but I have to be home by 11 p.m."
Violating or stretching your own time boundaries can result in social burnout and stress, so stick to your limits, but know you can adjust, too. If you want to extend your time limit, ease into it—if you’re usually one to stay somewhere for 30 minutes, try committing to an hour instead of three, initially.
3. Practice healthy self-talk
Using positive self-talk can make inevitable boundary violations sting less. "You may say to yourself something like, 'Oh, there Aunt Susan goes again, commenting on why I don’t have kids yet. I knew she was going to bring up something uncomfortable, so this isn’t surprising. I’m going to see it for what it’s worth—a boundary crossing—and not let it get to me,'" suggests Neha Chaudhary, MD, a double board-certified child and adolescent psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and chief medical officer at Modern Health. This act of simply narrating what’s happening and taking the blame off yourself can help you stay relaxed in the moment, she says.
4. Be mindful of your substance use
Knowing and recognizing your relationship to substances like alcohol is important for your boundaries because your behavior may change when the drinks flow1. “We are often better able to enforce our boundaries when we’re not using substances because depending on our nature, we can be more sensitive, aggressive2, or even more open than we want when we drink, especially if we’re trying to use it as a social lubricant or if you’re anxious,” says Dr. Manly. You don’t have to reject every glass, but knowing how substances affect you and not over-imbibing is key.
5. Assemble an "emotional care kit"
Dr. Manly suggests stashing a bag with a couple of soothing support items for when you’re overwhelmed or overstimulated and keeping it on you—she likes to carry scented hand lotion and applies it when she needs a little bit of a mental reset and moment of calm. “When you’re in an unfamiliar area, it can help to have your familiar toolkit,” she says.
This may be hand lotion for you, too, or a piece of chocolate, gum, a tiny vial of perfume, a fidget spinner, or some other token. You may also consider bringing a small pair of headphones if you want to take a walk or call a friend, or lipstick that makes you feel like the best version of yourself, so you can apply it in the bathroom for a pick-me-up.
6. Create new, pleasant rituals
If stress is the primary emotion you associate with the holidays, Dr. Chaudhary recommends creating some new rituals to break this dynamic. “Maybe having to see people around this time stresses you out, or maybe it reminds you of people whom you’ve lost, leaving you feeling lonely," she says. “Whatever it is, find that new thing that you can look on fondly.”
Maybe you start a tradition of ice skating with friends on Friday night, or you take a daily walk to look at holiday light displays in your neighborhood. They can even be small habit shifts, like a gratitude journaling practice, or sitting down to watch a movie with a mug of special hot cocoa or tea. These don’t even have to involve the holidays—it could simply be “listening to a playlist that has nothing to do with the holidays while in your most comfortable loungewear,” Dr. Chaudhary adds.
The point is to do your best to make this time of year as smooth and painless as possible, and even after doing so, expect boundary violations from your loved ones and friends to still happen because people are human. When someone inevitably crosses one of your boundaries, be ready to re-assert yourself by gently restating your needs and preferences, especially to those who may not be familiar with your new expectations, Dr. Manly says. Check in with yourself about how often this happens, and if the violations are more frequent than feels acceptable to you, you may have to make some decisions about whether you want to spend time with certain people at all.
- Field, Matt et al. “Acute alcohol effects on inhibitory control and implicit cognition: implications for loss of control over drinking.” Alcoholism, clinical and experimental research vol. 34,8 (2010): 1346-52. doi:10.1111/j.1530-0277.2010.01218.x
- Beck, Anne, and Andreas Heinz. “Alcohol-related aggression-social and neurobiological factors.” Deutsches Arzteblatt international vol. 110,42 (2013): 711-5. doi:10.3238/arztebl.2013.0711
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