What do you think of when you hear the word boundaries? Because whatever you associate boundaries with will have a lot to do with how you go about setting them. Boundaries can be emotional or physical, or both.
Emotional boundaries can include non-tolerance of a certain behavior, certain topics being off-limits, needing time to reflect before speaking on a subject, and more.
Physical boundaries may include hugging and kissing, how much personal space you feel comfortable in, or any other act like tickling, light pinches, or even being touched on the shoulder or back. Everyone has different comfort levels with different things; no two people are the exact same.
If you have a hard time setting boundaries on a daily basis, then special occasions such as holidays may be extra challenging for you. You may find yourself in the company of people who don’t interact with you enough to know your boundaries or are more focused on having fun than being cautious about others’ needs. We have all come across people who take zero issues with overstepping boundaries that they don’t personally have; if it’s not valid to them, it’s not valid. It is very possible that these people will be among those you socialize with over the holiday season.
You may have a hard time with boundaries in relationships in general that stem from people-pleasing. These could be family relationships, friendships, and/or romantic relationships. If you are lucky, there are people around you who support you in your efforts to stand up for yourself and your needs. These are the people who will cheer you on as you work to prioritize your needs over theirs. But they might not be at your holiday gatherings, or there may not be enough of them to give you the confidence boost you need.
Why is it Hard to Set Boundaries During the Holidays?
1. You don’t want to be “the bad guy” and ruin the holiday:
One of the core fears of setting boundaries is the fear that you will upset the other person. You can imagine that such fear is exacerbated by the holidays when it is all about being jolly and merry.
The theme of “togetherness” that rings throughout the season is lovely, yes. But only if that togetherness brings you joy! The additional stress of feeling obligated to put on a happy face when you are in a gathering that makes you feel uncomfortable, unsafe, or invalidated is distressing, but can feel like less trouble than “creating a problem” at the time. This can lead to being over-scheduled, biting your tongue when someone says something you find offensive, participating in activities you don’t enjoy, and more. 2. You feel extra pressure during the holidays:
2. You feel extra pressure during the holidays:
Holidays are a time of giving, and not only when it comes to material goods such as gifts. We feel extra obligation to give our time, attention, and affection to others. Setting boundaries can feel like you are neglecting others by putting yourself first at a time of year when the “theme” is generosity.
There are also many rare events and gatherings that take place during this time. Perhaps your entire family only gathers in the winter, or maybe you travel somewhere to ski. The novelty of these events can lead to a feeling of obligation; “It’s just once a year, I’ll just grin and bear it.” Or you may not want to take the chance of creating conflict with someone you haven’t seen in a year – or, in the case of this second pandemic year, maybe two.
3. It is hard for you to set boundaries all year long:
Healthy boundaries will not just appear out of nowhere in time for the holidays. You may be someone who naturally has a hard time asserting and enforcing your limits all the time; in the holiday season, you will likely struggle just as much, if not more. While you may feel more motivated to enforce them, you will not be in the habit of doing so. This also means that there are people in your life who are used to you not speaking up about your boundaries. At a busy and stressful time of year, they may be less likely to hear you out.
Do any of these sound familiar? Is it hard for you to set boundaries during the holidays? If so, you are not alone in that struggle. Many people seek help in understanding, setting, and maintaining boundaries, and there is no shame in being among them. You might want to seek support from a mental health professional to help you approach this challenge. The work that can be done around setting boundaries is about taking positive steps instead of avoiding negative emotions.
2 Easy Steps to Setting Boundaries During the Holidays:
- Befriend your boundaries:
Setting boundaries does not have to be a source of stress or tension. Boundaries can be your friend – in fact, they are your friend! Your boundaries exist because of who you are and what you have experienced. They have been shaped by your needs; you have learned what you require when it comes to feeling safe and respected.
Rather than viewing your boundaries as an inconvenience, acknowledge that they are a part of life for everyone, and accept that you have them. Take some quiet time to yourself to consider what your boundaries are and why they are in place. Focus on the positive outcomes of your boundaries. When a boundary is respected, how do you feel? Safe, calm, appreciated, respected, secure? When a person respects your boundaries with no questions asked, how do you feel about that person? You probably respect and appreciate that person; perhaps it even strengthens your love and affection for her/him/them. Knowing, setting, and communicating your boundaries is a great way to provide those around you with information about how to show you love and respect. You are setting them up for success.
Keep that fact in mind: people who know your boundaries can love you properly. You are not asking too much or being difficult, but communicating them. You are providing your loved ones with the ability to give you what you need. You would never want to cross their boundaries; odds are, they don’t want to cross yours, either.
And if they don’t care about your boundaries, then enforcing them is a great way to find that out. From there, you can determine how much effort you want to put into explaining and at what time. Perhaps this is a person you rarely see, but you still want to make a point of speaking your truth; go for it. Maybe you see the person so infrequently that you don’t want to bother; that’s your choice. Your boundaries are in place for yourself and no one else.
- Change your narrative around setting boundaries:
What are the stories you are telling yourself about setting boundaries? Identify where you learned these from and actively challenge them by rewriting them. Ask yourself, “What are the stories I am telling myself?”
For example, if you learned from your mom that during holidays “you should be extra nice,” then you are left feeling guilty if you are not joyous 24/7. Become curious about what you were told. This doesn’t mean you have to feel negatively about your mom; maybe she was told the same thing. Maybe the two of you can find some common ground when it comes to how you were socialized, and what your needs really are. Or maybe not. Regardless, you have the right to investigate what you were told and how it makes you feel.
If you feel pressured to be “extra nice” during the season, talk to yourself about it. Would you expect someone else to be joyous and grateful for several weeks in a row? Do you think that it is even possible to do so? If it’s not, why should you be expected to achieve it? If you think it is, do you believe that your current situation is set up to support you in being constantly happy? How can you affirm yourself? Perhaps, you will practice saying, “I can be grateful and still struggle or falter”; or, “It is not up to me to put on a happy face so that everyone else can feel comfortable.” Something as simple as, “I was misinformed before, but now I know better” can be incredibly liberating. There is no reason to hold on to what doesn’t serve you.
You may reflect on your boundaries as part of a couple and find patterns from your past. Despite the narrative that a couple is “two halves”, we are individuals with bodily autonomy even when we are in a romantic relationship. You may have had unhealthy boundaries with an ex that created feelings of guilt or shame or gave you an idea that there is no such thing as boundaries in dating or boundaries in marriage. This is not true. You have every right to assert your needs to a partner and have those needs respected. Your partner should want to support you in creating a safe dynamic. You may both want to assess and uphold one another’s boundaries but not know where to begin.
- Take actions to protect your boundaries:
At the end of the day, actions speak louder than words. And whatever change you make, you need to back it up with actions. For some, it would mean saying no to an invitation. For others, it would mean buying less expensive presents to avoid financial stress come January 1st. A boundary could be a sensitive topic of conversation, such as a social justice issue. It could be talking about food and diet (rampant at this time of year).
For every boundary you think of, plan how you will state and enforce it. You might plan a way to speak about it for more intimate companions and a different way for those you don’t know well. Does enforcing this boundary require you to recruit help? For example, asking the host of a gathering to seat you somewhere specific at dinner. If you have boundaries regarding certain subjects, plan what you might say and practice it. “I’m not comfortable discussing this,” or “Can we please talk about something else?” are both simple sentences that you can use to change the conversation. If your statements are not honored, you can walk away; get a refill of your drink, use the washroom, spot someone across the room you haven’t said hello to you. Whatever works for you.
Set aside time to reflect on how your boundaries were (or weren’t) respected, how you handled it, and how you wish to proceed from there. Observe and reflect on how you felt and responded with as little self-criticism as necessary. This time is a tool to use to support yourself as you continue to advocate for yourself, not a time to pull yourself down. Make your favorite snack, light your favorite scented candle, listen to your favorite music. Create a positive environment for yourself to reflect in.
Boundaries are an essential part of feeling strong and stable year-round. The holiday season is not the only time to focus on boundaries – extended family time and general holiday stress are usually what bring the need for boundaries to the surface. You may have decided last year to work on your boundaries more this year, but it got away from you a little bit. If this holiday season is shaping up to be exceptionally challenging for you when it comes to setting boundaries, don’t be too hard on yourself. Resolve to begin the work and make that happen for yourself. Take it piece by piece and day by day. Progress is not a straight upward trajectory; it ebbs and flows and stalls. The important thing is that you remember that you are deserving of feeling safe and secure. Keep that in mind as you do the work.