Don’t want to make homemade apple pie? Bring a frozen one. Can’t afford the employee gift exchange? Politely opt out. Not willing to spend the night at a relative’s house? Book a hotel stay instead.
The holiday season can be stressful with baking, shopping and a million other things cluttering our to-do lists. Not to mention, holiday parties are often hotbeds for intrusive personal questions, invasive comments on your appearance and heated discussions about current events. (Is reading this making your heart race? Because same.)
It’s no wonder a study done by the National Alliance of Mental Health found that 64% of people with mental illness report holidays make their conditions worse. A 2021 study by telehealth provider Sesame found that 3 in 5 Americans feel their mental health is negatively impacted by the holidays, with 60% reporting an increase in anxiety and 52% feeing an increase in depression compared to the 2020 holiday season.
So, what can you do to make the holiday season more holly jolly and less mentally draining? Set boundaries.
“Setting boundaries during the holiday season, especially with family members and other people who are close to you, is a radical act of self-care to be celebrated,” said Sarah Kaufman, a therapist at Cobb Psychotherapy in Brooklyn Heights, New York. “It’s a way to honor your values, financial situation, and mental health. It’s not only a nice thing to do for yourself, but in some cases, it is essential for your overall well-being.”
Rachel Hoffman, a licensed clinical social worker and chief therapy officer at Real, said boundaries are especially important this year, “as we’re living through an ongoing pandemic, witnessing a tremendous amount of destruction, and experiencing collective grief.”
Think of it this way: Your mental health can’t afford not to have boundaries. HuffPost spoke with therapists to get expert tips on setting and maintaining boundaries this holiday season. Here’s what to do:
1. Decide on your boundaries in advance.
- What things are important for me to do during this holiday season?
- How do I want to feel after the holidays are over?
- Do I need some time for myself during the holiday season?
- What will help me feel happy during the holiday season?
- Am I saying yes to a lot of things because I feel guilty?
“This is a process, and it may take us some time to determine what boundaries we want to set with ourselves and with our loved ones,” Lira de la Rosa said.
2. Don’t feel obligated to travel.
If you don’t want to travel right now, that’s OK.
“Holiday travel this year is complicated,” Kaufman said. “Perhaps you don’t feel comfortable traveling to see family because it feels uncertain or unsafe. This is an opportunity to set a boundary.”
She suggests telling family members, “I don’t feel safe enough to travel. I wish I could see you, and I’m sad that I can’t.”
3. Say “yes” only to the events you truly want to attend.
“If we recognize that we tend to overfill our schedule with holiday parties (usually out of the desire to please others), and then feel emotionally exhausted, then maybe the thing we are needing is self-preservation,” said Kaitlin Soule, a licensed marriage and family therapist and author of “A Little Less of a Hot Mess.”
“This might look like committing to saying ‘yes’ to just your top two or three holiday-related events and building in more time to cozy up at home with a good book or a loved one,” she added.
4. Establish your COVID requirements ahead of time.
If you don’t want to expand your circle this year, try saying something like “to keep everyone as safe and healthy as possible this season, I’m comfortable hosting our immediate family at home, and will plan to celebrate with friends and neighbors that we typically see this time of the year in different ways.”
Try to keep the discussion focused on you and your concerns, Patel-Dunn said. For example, you could say, “I would feel uncomfortable hosting you and putting you at risk knowing that you’re unvaccinated,” or “out of respect for everyone attending this year, here are the guidelines ― let me know if you need me to send a list of places to get PCR tested.”
5. Set a budget for gifts that won’t cause you anxiety.
“It is common for people to feel particularly stressed about monetary issues around the holiday time,” Hoffman said.
She suggests communicating ahead of time in whatever way feels right for you. “That might look like texting your friends that you would prefer to set a $20 cap for the gift exchange or simply opting out of that part of the party this year,” Hoffman explained.
6. Excuse yourself from triggering conversations.
“Some find it very difficult to engage in conversations with those with extreme opposing opinions on matters such as politics, religion, culture or current events,” said Lori Ryland, a clinical psychologist and chief clinical officer of Pinnacle Treatment Centers. “Remember that those with strong opinions are very rarely convinced of an opposing view. If your goal is to get through to him/her and align them with your views, it is unlikely to happen.”
Avoid those triggering situations if you can ― sometimes that means not going if you know someone will be there who disrespects you. If not, Ryland recommended saying, “We will just have to agree to disagree” or “I am here to enjoy family and the holiday, not debate.”
And, if someone is commenting on your weight, body or eating habits, you don’t have to listen. “If you are on the receiving end of comments like these — which are rooted in the false belief that we are only good when our bodies are a different shape, size, or weight — set the boundary that makes you feel most safe,” Kaufman said. “Perhaps you assertively say, ‘I feel uncomfortable and hurt when I hear your words.’ Or maybe you leave the room.”
7. Set time limits at parties.
“Time is limited and precious during the holiday season,” said Laura Bokar, a licensed marriage and family therapist, chief executive officer at Fox Valley Institute and author of “We Need to Talk – 24 Simple Insights for Relationships.” “Planning will be very important. Set a schedule and let family and friends know ahead of time when and how much time you will be able to spend with them.”
She added that if some are disappointed, remember it’s not your responsibility to take care of those feelings.
8. Set consequences for your boundaries.
“Boundaries without a consequence are just a suggestion,” said Divya Robin, a psychotherapist in New York City.
“Let people know if a boundary of yours is crossed what will happen — whether that means you will leave the room for a few minutes, get some fresh air, or entirely leave — as this lets people know you are serious about your boundaries,” Robin explained.
9. Practice self-care throughout the holiday season.
Amira Johnson, a therapist at Berman Psychotherapy in Atlanta, suggested continuing self-care practices during the holidays. Try bringing your journal with you while traveling or allotting times to meditate throughout the day.
“Keeping yourself grounded and still feeling connected with yourself will keep you from feeling overwhelmed and out of alignment,” she said.
10. Take care of your overall health.
Ronit Levy, director of Bucks County Anxiety Center in Newton, Pennsylvania, said to also focus on sleep and nutrition this holiday season. “When your body feels depleted, you’re more likely to be cranky and make decisions that don’t protect your health,” Levy said. “It’s also harder to think clearly and stay calm.”
Levy also recommended taking breaks throughout the day, as “overwhelming your brain and body makes it harder to stick to your boundaries, manage tough feelings, and handle stressful situations.”
“Focus on what matters to you and what you want to get out of the holidays,” Levy added. “Remember that the holidays aren’t about pleasing everyone. Focus on the traditions and people that really matter to you as well as the memories you want to create. This will help decrease how much you have on your plate and the resentment that comes from being overwhelmed.”
Setting boundaries may seem difficult, but they can actually make the holidays more enjoyable. Don’t be afraid to give them a try.