It’ll come as a surprise to no one that the holiday season can be just as depleting as it is fulfilling. Whether your funds run dry or your energy is drained after countless parties, the festive season can feel anything but.
A few concrete boundaries can help you this time of year, therapists say — and could even leave you with more money in your pocket and time to relax and do the things you really want to do.
Below, therapists share the most important boundaries to set this holiday season to protect yourself from holiday depletion and frustration.
Time you’re expected to spend with others.
“We need to put boundaries around the time that people are asking of us and the time that people are requiring or demanding of us,” said Ebony Butler, a psychologist in Texas.
“One of the things that leaves people feeling the most stressed out is this pressure to be everywhere, all the time,” Butler said.
Think about it: you probably have multiple events to attend each week throughout December, whether it’s dinners with friends, family gatherings, work holiday parties, celebrations at your kids’ school or New Year’s festivities.
It’s important to establish boundaries around what you have the capacity to do, according to Butler. It’s OK to decline invitations.
The number of family events you’re attending.
“Thinking specifically around the holidays, if we’re thinking about boundaries with family or family of origin, a lot of times boundaries aren’t even considered,” said Danica Harris, a somatic therapist and coach based in Texas. “It’s like, ‘Oh, well, we just do this out of traditions sake.’”
Sometimes these traditions are what’s best for everyone in the family, but sometimes they’re not. For example, Christmas Eve with your mom and Christmas Day with your cousins may make everyone around you happy, but may require you to drive across the state to appease everyone’s needs.
If that doesn’t feel good to you, you’re likely just building up resentment, which creates a layer of negativity surrounding these events ― as opposed to looking forward to the connection, Harris said. You should allow yourself to think about other ways to celebrate that won’t leave you feeling depleted, whether that means skipping an event or FaceTiming in.
Ask yourself, “What do I actually want here? What’s working for me and what’s not working for me in my relationships with others?” Harris said. “If we don’t look at that, then we’re more likely to just do what we’ve always done ... and that’s where I think if we don’t have good boundaries, if we’re just doing what we’ve always done or we’re doing the default ... then we’re abandoning ourselves.”
“We shouldn’t be self-sacrificing to meet someone else’s needs,” she continued. “And, if we’re giving into other people’s wants and needs all the time, we’re not going to feel seen and met. So it’s really hard to have a true meaningful connection with someone if boundaries aren’t in place.”
Financial and gifting limits.
Folks may not have the same budget for holiday shopping that they did in previous years. But when it comes to conversations around money, it’s easy for people to feel sheepish and, in turn, avoid setting necessary financial boundaries around gifting.
“I think rather than feeling fearful about having those conversations, we need to lean into them. Because what we actually see is that it’s stressful initially to have the conversation, but so much relief is had when the boundaries in place,” Harris explained.
Think about it: It feels way better to go into a gifting situation knowing that your limit spending limit is $25 per person as opposed to feeling awkward about it after the fact. No one can be shocked by a boundary if you effectively communicate it.
According to Harris, there are a few important boundaries that can be set when it comes to holiday gifting. These include:
- Spending limits.
- Boundaries around who you are buying for, like doing a white elephant instead of gifts for the whole family or friend group.
- A decision not to exchange gifts at all.
Beyond gifting, Manahil Riaz, a psychotherapist in Houston and owner of Riaz Counseling, said other financial boundaries can be helpful, too. For example, you and your partner may decide on how much you’re willing to spend on travel during the holidays, or you can decide how much you can afford to donate to charity this year.
Physical space and closeness.
According to Riaz, one concrete boundary that’s especially important this season is physical boundaries.
“It’s me, and then I have an imaginary bubble ... if people get too close to me, I start to back off,” Riaz said.
This could mean putting your hand up when you run into your uncle who hugs you too tightly or telling your grandma you don’t want to be touched right now. The same should hold true for kids.
“Physical boundaries are probably the most relevant for kids, right? Because we, in this culture, we have this thing of ‘give your grandma hug’ where the kid might not want to,” Riaz said.
So, instead of saying “give your grandma a hug,” you can ask your child if they would like to hug grandma. If they say no, that boundary is established.
Comments about your body or the amount of food you’re eating.
“When we go around family and friends, some of the things that they notice first is our outward appearance,” Butler said. Your loved ones may say things like “you’ve gained weight” or “you’ve lost weight” without realizing that this may be triggering, Butler added.
This goes hand-in-hand with another line-crossing behavior: commenting on what you’re eating or not eating. (You can probably hear a great-aunt making fun of your portion size or a well-meaning parent asking why you aren’t eating more.)
Butler said it’s important to set boundaries that relate to both of these topics. This could mean letting your loved ones know that comments about your body aren’t appreciated and will be met with you leaving dinner. Or it could look like you flatly stating “this is not something I feel like talking about today,” Butler said.
Topics like politics and religion.
Conversation topic limits are also an important boundary, according to Harris. Issues like politics and religion can be some of the most turbulent conversations when different groups of people come together.
If certain topics make you uncomfortable with your family or friends, you can set a boundary ahead of time by letting your loved ones know that this topic is going to result in you leaving the room or leaving the party altogether. By establishing this boundary, you put the onus on them.
“The other person has a choice ... do they bring it up or not? Like, if I want to be connected to you and you’ve told me that talking about politics is going to make it where you have to leave, then it’s on me to decide, well, I’m not going to talk about politics in front of you, because I want you here,” Harris explained.
And if it does come up, you can remind your loved ones of your boundary by simply saying, “Hey, I’m not talking about that right now,” Harris said. “That gives the other person the ability if they want to take it to change the topic. And if the decision from that other person is ‘well, I don’t care, I’m going to talk about politics,’ well, then that tells you a lot about the nature of your relationship.”
Topics regarding parenting styles, kids and relationship status.
Family or friends may mean well when they bring up your parenting style or recent breakup, but these can be uncomfortable topics for many folks during the holiday season.
These subjects could benefit from boundaries, too, according to Butler. Specifically, these comments could come in the form of “you shouldn’t let your child do that” or “why don’t you have kids yet?” or “when are you getting married?” or “why did you break up with your ex?” or “when are you getting divorced?”
You can set boundaries ahead of time, and even at the start of the event that clearly state what you are willing to talk about, unwilling to talk about and what will happen if a topic is brought up at an event.
“It's really hard to have a true meaningful connection with someone if boundaries aren’t in place.”
How to set these boundaries with others:
Setting boundaries is not easy. If anything, it can be uncomfortable — especially for people-pleasers, Riaz said. But there are a few things you can do to effectively set boundaries in a way that (hopefully) gets through to those around you.
“Start off by just pretending like they have no idea,” Riaz said — meaning, just because someone has known you for a long time doesn’t mean they know your thoughts on politics, religion or parenting.
Additionally, don’t assume that someone can understand how you’re feeling just by your body language or an audible sigh. Harris noted that many of her clients have only passively communicated boundaries with their parents by rolling their eyes or staying quiet during an uncomfortable conversation, for example. This is not the same as creating an actual boundary.
Instead of passively tolerating something you don’t like, your boundary is your way of communicating your needs clearly and creating consequences ― like not coming over — if the boundary is crossed. And it gives your parent the chance to stick to the boundary, and in turn, create a better relationship between you two, Harris said.
Additionally, it’s important to state your emotion, too, Riaz said. “The thing about emotion is that no one can argue with your emotion.”
So, if your uncle is following you around trying to get you to talk about a topic that makes you uneasy, you can explicitly say, “Hey, I feel really uncomfortable,” Riaz explained. “Because they need to understand that you’re having an experience, it’s not that you’re trying to avoid a conversation or you don’t have a great response, they need to understand that there there is an emotion that’s happening.”
Then if the person doesn’t listen to your wishes, you can take it one step further and be persistent with your boundary.
“I love the broken record method. This method is that you just continue to state ‘Hey, I feel uncomfortable when you talk about this radical belief, I need space,’” Riaz said.
Riaz stressed that it’s often pretty normal to have to restate your boundary before getting through to someone. And if you don’t get through, it’s also OK to protect your emotions and go for a walk outside or even leave the event.
Keep in mind that boundaries are not meant to control another person.
“Something that I want to differentiate here is that our boundaries are for us, and not for others,” Harris said. “So, I can’t tell Dad not to talk about politics, but I can decide how I’m going to respond if Dad talks about politics.”
According to Harris, telling someone not to talk about a certain topic is a rule, not a boundary.
“But, the reality is, if Dad goes down that path, and he starts talking about politics, I might just need to get up and leave the room until that conversation is over. Or that might be my cue that it’s time to go home,” she said. “Knowing the difference between what a boundary is and what a rule for someone else is ... we can’t dictate what someone else decides to.”
Setting boundaries and saying no is not easy, Butler stressed. It’s important to have tools in place to cope with the discomfort that occurs when you do set boundaries, she said.
“A lot of us don’t think ... about the guilt that comes up, the uneasiness in our bodies that comes up,” Butler said — but these things will happen when establishing boundaries.
To take care of yourself, Butler suggests creating a list of coping tools for when you’re feeling uneasy or guilty “so that no doesn’t have to be something you go back on.”
Journaling, meditating, nature walks and therapy are all good ways to cope when holiday boundaries leave you feeling stressed, Butler said.
And it’s also good to remember that these boundaries can help relationships, maintain your resources and protect your peace during the busiest season of the year.