The holiday season is a time of mixed emotions for many people. While some of us revel in the joy and togetherness of our beloved customs, reconnecting with loved ones, and savoring delicious meals, we may also feel nostalgia, grief, or struggle to navigate complicated family dynamics and expectations. In such situations, it’s essential to establish healthy boundaries for a smoother festive season. The thought of designating healthy boundaries with family can feel overwhelming for many of us, especially in the face of generational patterns of dysfunction. It’s common to feel unsure where to start, but we can begin by reflecting on our values. By figuring out what matters most to us, we can better understand where to draw the line to reduce holiday stress and enjoy more meaningful and authentic relationships with our loved ones.
What are boundaries and why do they matter?
Boundaries are not about manipulating other people’s actions or creating a power dynamic. Instead, boundaries help us determine how we engage with others, the level of respect we seek, and what we need to feel comfortable in our relationships. Therefore, setting boundaries is a way of caring for ourselves and protecting our well-being.
Boundaries can take various forms, such as physical, emotional, time, financial, or intellectual. During the festive season, boundaries we may need to set involve:
- Prioritizing our mental and physical health
- Adapting to changing family dynamics
- Coping with grief or loss
- Navigating cultural or religious differences
- Creating new traditions with immediate family
- Managing finances
Common challenges setting boundaries with family
Many people tend to prioritize the needs of others over their own during the holidays, often due to guilt for not fulfilling someone else’s demands. Fear of rejection or abandonment often drives this self-sacrificing behavior. It can be challenging to overcome due to social and cultural expectations that make it hard to assert personal boundaries that deviate from established norms (Bacon & Conway, 2022). Setting boundaries can be particularly difficult for individuals from non-westernized cultures that value interdependence and familial responsibilities more than individualistic ideals (Jackson et al., 2016).
Families often have long-standing patterns that dictate roles and expectations during the holidays, making it challenging for individuals to challenge behaviors or attitudes that harm them. For example, suppose a family member is assumed to host Thanksgiving yearly. In that case, speaking up may be difficult for this individual out of fear that doing so could lead to tension or exacerbate existing issues. As a result, they may sacrifice their well-being and happiness to maintain family harmony during the holidays.
Family therapist Salvador Minuchin (1974) coined the term “enmeshment” to describe a dysfunctional family interaction pattern where poorly defined boundaries between individuals lead to a lack of emotional independence and autonomy among family members. In enmeshed families, individual autonomy is often sacrificed in favor of loyalty, resulting in a sense of entrapment for members. This sense of entanglement can become more apparent during the holidays, where there may be an expectation that all free time must be spent with the family, with little tolerance for anyone wanting to spend time with their partner’s family or friends.
Connecting to your values
Values are the principles that guide our decisions and influence our behavior, shaping who we are. They are not static but dynamic, adapting to our evolving needs and perspectives. When we connect with our values, we gain a clear understanding of what we stand for and what we aim to achieve. Once we’ve identified our values, we can thoughtfully decide where to draw the line with our loved ones. It’s natural to sometimes feel disconnected from certain holiday traditions or celebrations, often due to internal conflicts, personal growth, or situational influence.
The first and most crucial step when creating healthy boundaries is to identify your values. This requires introspection into what matters most to you. When dealing with dysfunctional family dynamics, it’s common to experience unpleasant emotions such as anger, sadness, or resentment. These emotions can signal a mismatch between your values and the behavior of your family members. For instance, if you value trust but your family members are consistently dishonest with you, you may feel frustrated and angry. Similarly, suppose you value authenticity but have to hide parts of yourself around emotionally unsafe or intolerant family members. In that case, it can trigger feelings of fear, anxiety, and shame.
It can be beneficial to take a moment and notice how your body reacts to different situations during the holiday season. To establish the boundaries that work best for you:
- Imagine yourself enclosed in a circle.
- Visualize the traditions, rituals, feelings, activities, places, and people you associate with the holidays.
- Think about the things that you want to keep outside of your circle. These might be the things that you dread or that give you anxiety during the holiday season. Pay attention to how your body reacts as you consider these different elements. Does anything make you feel heavy, tense, or even numb?
- Consider which ones you want to surround yourself with and invite into your circle. These are the things that reinforce your love of the holidays and bring you warmth, safety, and ease.
Communicating your boundaries
When communicating your boundaries, it’s essential to be explicit and straightforward. Instead of making general statements, provide concrete examples of what you need. For instance, if you need some alone time, be clear and direct about it. Use “I” statements to convey your feelings and needs while avoiding sounding accusatory. For example, instead of saying, “You all overwhelm me,” say, “I need to recharge by having some quiet time.” It’s also helpful to suggest alternatives that can help meet your needs and some of your family’s expectations. Doing this demonstrates your willingness to find compromises and ensure a more collaborative approach.
While it may feel uncomfortable, anticipate push-back from family members when communicating your boundaries. Remember that your boundaries may stir up deep-rooted anxieties and insecurities, leading to reactions of anger or dismay. To manage their expectations, clearly communicate your boundaries in advance. During the discussion, acknowledge that your boundary might be difficult for them to hear and that you understand there may be disappointment. Doing so can help them feel recognized and involved in the process. It’s imperative to remain steadfast in your boundaries, despite any resistance, and be empathetic to their feelings.
Here are some examples of communicating boundaries effectively:
- “I need some alone time this year, so I’m going to stay in a hotel when I visit.”
- “I understand your excitement to see the baby, but I’m not comfortable with anyone holding her until she’s a little older.”
- “Please don’t ask me about (marriage, kids, break-up, etc.).”
- “Please don’t comment on my weight.”
- “We’ve decided to spend the holidays with just the two of us this year.”
- “I feel uncomfortable when you tell my child they’re playing with the wrong toys. We don’t assign gender to toys in our house.”
“I’m looking forward to your party, but I won’t be drinking this year.”
Setting boundaries can be challenging, especially for those who have adapted to prioritizing the needs of others above their own. However, it’s important to understand that setting boundaries is not about being selfish or controlling others but rather about taking care of yourself and respecting your values. In any relationship, whether with family or not, you have the right to choose how you show up (Tawwab, 2023). Keep in mind that there is no “perfect” way to celebrate the holidays; everyone has their unique way of doing things, and that is perfectly acceptable. By modeling healthy boundaries in your relationships, you create healthier family dynamics and inspire others to do the same.
Bacon, I., & Conway, J. (2022). Co-dependency and Enmeshment — a Fusion of Concepts. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 21(6), 3594–3603. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11469-022-00810-4
Harris, R. (2019). Act made simple : An easy-to-read primer on acceptance and commitment therapy. New Harbinger Publications.
Jackson, E. F., Raval, V. V., Bendikas-King, E. A., Raval, P. H., & Trivedi, S. S. (2016). Cultural Variation in Reports of Subjective Experience of Parent–Child Boundary Dissolution Among Emerging Adults. Journal of Family Issues, 37(5), 671–691. https://doi.org/10.1177/0192513X15576280
Minuchin, S. (1974). Families and family therapy. London: Routledge.
Tawwab, N. G. (2023). Drama free: a guide to managing unhealthy family relationships. [New York], A TarcherPerigee Book.