• Holiday Boundaries: Protect your Peace

    The turkey has hardly cooled, and we’re already planning and plotting for what’s ahead—trimming the tree and stuffing the stockings.  There’s no denying the holidays are in full swing.  What comes to mind as you begin to plan your festivities?

    A broad range of answers may come up—

    • Tradition, meaning, and travel
    • Christmas music and sparkly lights
    • Stress, overspending, exhaustion
    • Loneliness and consumerism
    • Feelings of peace and joy
    • Rest and relaxation
    • Giving and receiving
    • Food, expectations of others, family

    It is safe to say that holidays are a careful balancing act between ‘hustle and bustle’ and ‘peace on earth, goodwill toward men.’

    Whether young or old, we tend toward operating on a set of standards and obligations that are automatic. Sometimes patterns we hold for holidays are borne out of guilt, duty, or “what we’ve always done.”

    When we move through this season on autopilot, we become prone to participating in activities without intention.  Sometimes, we even walk into holiday traditions driven by the preference of others, neglecting what we value and what is best for our time.  This way risks leaving us weary, resentful, and lonelier than we would like because it does not honor both self and others.

    In all honesty, it took driving dangerously through an ice storm on Christmas while in school to become a marriage and family therapist for me to wake up to how I was conducting my own holiday traditions without a clear sense of direction, purpose, and protection of my energy.   Each holiday season, I found myself overcommitting and letting others decide traditions for me, which left me exhausted to say the least.

    In my current work with couples, families, and individuals, I often hear how a cloud of stress, isolation, and overwhelm hangs over what they feel should be a peace-filled time of year.  Because I have been pulled by my own mindlessness and people-pleasing during the holidays, I can relate and hold space as my clients create a better way.

    If your head is nodding wildly in agreement, or if this sounds even remotely like the struggle of your holidays, there is hope because it is always possible to choose and do otherwise.  Two things are needed to change course: awareness of values and setting boundaries in three key areas, including financial, physical, and emotional.

    Mindfulness and Values—First, take time to pay close attention to what your current holiday routine is and jot down answers to some of these questions:

    What are you being driven by during the holidays?

    What do you value about holidays?

    What are you celebrating?

    What do you find brings you joy around this season?

    What do you find exhausting about this time?

    These questions are about your values, which hold the keys to finding and creating better boundaries. When we are driven by what we value, rather than guilt, we live in closer alignment with what we hold dear.  We feel a deep sense of self-respect, control, and peace during our holiday activities because we know where and why our boundaries lie.

    But what are boundaries, exactly?

    Boundaries are self-defined rules for what is okay and what is not okay.

    Boundaries help you decide ahead of time what you can say yes or no to.  Holiday boundaries help keep you from over-giving and over-stretching. They support you in making sustainable choices that honor your values, your energy, and your relationships.

    Financial: This is a common area many people struggle to set limits around.  The stress of purchasing multiple gifts, and the burden it brings to your bank account can be tremendous, edging us toward a “more is more” attitude.  This attitude may even drive some into debt.

    Ask: What are your current financial values and goals? Are you overspending when one of your values is holding to your budget? Are you spending impulsively or outside of your budget out of obligation or guilt?

    Try: Budget! It may sound Scrooge-like, but commit to a spending budget for gifts.  Find practical ways to stick to it, such as using an envelope/cash system, or tracking your spending through apps on your phone.  Remind yourself “why” you are budgeting if it is an important value during this season.

    Physical: This is an area where you can consider things such as your time spent running errands, cooking, and traveling to and from get-togethers.  You can even factor in physical space, rest, and safety here.

    Ask: Are you finding yourself attending too many activities that leave you depleted of energy? Do you feel stretched too thin between families and friends? Are you running yourself ragged to make the perfect dessert? Are you neglecting sleep or exercise? Are you traveling in unsafe conditions? Are you introverted or prone to overstimulation at holiday gatherings?

    Try: Budget your time as you would budget your dollars. Decide ahead of time what amount of energy you have for each of these things, and prioritize what you value most.  Delegate, ask for help, buy the pie if you realize there is no time left to bake! If you anticipate push back from family about time spent, find a time beforehand to calmly communicate your boundaries to them.  Perhaps planning to celebrate on different days may be a solution.  If you are introverted or highly sensitive, go for a walk outside or find a quiet space to take a few deep breaths and ground yourself before returning to holiday activities.

    Emotional – Families often bring on emotional sensitivities in ways unlike other relationships we choose.  There may be unresolved tension or conflict, and while it is tempting to try, holiday gatherings are usually not an ideal environment for peace talks.  Even simple conversations can be like a land mine if you are struggling with your own mental health, grief, or complex life situation. Well-meaning people may ask questions of you or bring up topics that leave you squirming.  Knowing your sensitive spots and planning ahead for how you will respond to them will calm and guide you.

    Ask: Are you struggling with a challenging life situation such as family planning, illness, or relationship distress?  Do you have unresolved conflict with a family member?

    Try: Anticipating these questions and/or situations, and practicing simple phrases ahead of time such as “Thank you for asking; I am not comfortable talking about this right now” will help you feel in control of the situation.  Also remember: It is not your job to change anyone else or control anyone else’s behavior.  Keep in mind what you can control, and accept what is outside of that control.

    Holding your values close and keeping your boundaries strong this season will allow you to walk away from every interaction, household, and table with self-respect, mindfulness, and kindheartedness for yourself and those you love.

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