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How to Set Boundaries During the Holiday Season

From eating home-cooked meals to reconnecting with family, there is much to look forward to during the holiday season. The holidays can also be a major source of stress, however, forcing individuals to juggle difficult logistics and grapple with challenging interpersonal relationships. Because of these issues, it is no surprise that many people experience upticks in anxiety and mental health struggles when running the gauntlet between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day.

The past year has been unprecedented in many ways, with the Coronavirus pandemic complicating the holiday plans of millions of people across the country. With such additional stressors being layered on top of traditional seasonal anxieties, it is now more essential than ever to set appropriate boundaries ahead of the year’s remaining holidays.

Here are some tips for navigating the intricacies of boundary setting and achieving a more peaceful holiday season.

Let Go of Fear

At first, it can be frightening to think about setting boundaries and saying “no” when someone crosses them. Boundaries can feel synonymous with negativity, and you may feel that being known as a boundary setter means being known as insensitive, rigid and self-absorbed. “I was afraid that by setting boundaries, I was going to be viewed as mean, inflexible and selfish, and potentially ruin relationships and opportunities that I treasured," says ERC Recovery Ambassador Council member Anna Z.

As Anna points out, setting boundaries can feel exclusionary, like someone is opting out rather than opting in. Boundary setting may feel as if it is having the opposite effect than it was intended, imperiling someone’s emotional and mental health rather than protecting it. It is critical to let go of this perspective or flip it on its head. Instead of viewing boundaries as a negative or as a barrier between yourself and others, look at boundaries as an act of self-care, a crucial mechanism that can enable you to have better relationships and ultimately a far healthier life.

Ask Questions

Once you invert your perspective on boundaries, you can begin asking yourself questions about where your boundaries lie. This self-evaluation does not need to be overly complicated. In her blog, Anna writes, “Amidst my burnout, I had to give myself a reality check: ‘At what cost am I willing to please others?’"

Asking yourself a question like Anna’s can help you determine the location of your boundaries or where the lines are that people cannot cross. It shines a light on how accommodating or deferential you can be before it starts eroding your emotional, physical and mental health. If you are currently struggling with mental health issues, you should also likely ask a follow-up question. Anna writes in her blog that, when faced with a decision that may push against your boundaries, you should ask yourself: “Is this good for my own wellbeing and mental health recovery?”

Reap the Benefits

As you become more and more comfortable with setting boundaries, your new approach will begin to pay dividends. “I have found that I am much more present, level-headed and engaged when I have made decisions that put my mental health first,” writes Anna, commenting on her journey.

It’s important to clarify that establishing boundaries does not mean that you abdicate responsibility to others or avoid any action that calls for a degree of self-sacrifice. In fact, it’s the complete opposite. By establishing boundaries and then consistently enforcing them, you will be in a healthier and happier place, and, by extension, more effective in the various roles which we are called upon to occupy throughout our lives – whether that be the role of a friend, child, parent, spouse, mentor, student, teacher or citizen.

The Unique Importance of Holiday Boundaries

Holidays are often synonymous with giving. Not only do we often find ourselves feeling obligated to friends and family, but at times it can seem as if the entirety of the culture is reinforcing the need to commit your time, money and energy to one cause or another.
In seeking to establish boundaries, you may be required to not only decline “holiday invitations and houseguests [but also change or end] a personal tradition of holiday service or gifting to others,” according to Psychology Today. These boundaries should be communicated to others in “a calm, simple, and direct way without shaming or blaming the others” and then “pleasantly repeat a variation of your assertive statement” if people resist.

For the Holidays and Beyond

All of this may feel like a leap into the unknown. If you’re reading this article, chances are that establishing boundaries may feel novel and scary. It may represent a seismic shift from how you’ve grown accustomed to living, where you’ve given to others without delay or reservation, even at a tremendous cost to yourself.

But by shifting your perspective, defining where your boundaries are and then enforcing them with respect and transparency, you will find yourself enjoying greater health and an increased capacity for helping others. You will be able to enjoy these benefits both during the holiday season and for all of your days to come.

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