As we approach the holiday season, we typically find that our calendars and to-do lists quickly fill up with gift shopping, dinner parties, Christmas movie marathons, and family get-togethers. These occasions are all part of the joy of the season! Still, when we accept one-too-many holiday invitations or start putting everyone else’s needs above our own, the magic of the season can turn into madness.
The holiday mayhem that conveniently creeps its way amid the joy and sparkle almost feels unavoidable. But the solution to this ever-present problem is actually more attainable than we may think: setting healthy boundaries. I know–we all want the quick fixes that result in instant gratification. But handling interpersonal relationships and prioritizing ourselves is more complex and requires introspection. Establishing and taking care of our needs and expectations is a form of self-care beneficial to our mental health, enhancing overall health.
Now I know that setting healthy boundaries is a broad answer for likely specific circumstances, but once we understand what healthy boundaries are and why we need them, we can rework them to fit the parameters of any situation we find ourselves in this holiday season.
What are healthy boundaries?
Writer and therapist Prentis Hemphill once said, “Boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously,” and I couldn’t agree more. This statement powerfully sums up the basis for boundaries, but I’ll admit it’s a little abstract. In more concrete terms, personal boundaries are self-determined, communicated limits that protect one’s values from being compromised.
But what differentiates unhealthy boundaries from healthy boundaries? Unhealthy boundaries incorporate setting limits, but they often lack genuine respect for oneself or others, jeopardize honesty in relationships, and are loosely defined. Healthy boundaries, on the other hand, take time to develop as they require self-awareness and self-reflection. Though initially uncomfortable, setting healthy boundaries creates a safe environment for mutual care and respect to flourish.
Why do we need healthy boundaries?
Expressing healthy boundaries illustrates our expectations regarding how we allow others to treat us. Further, defining healthy boundaries exemplifies how we treat others. When we establish our personal values and limits, we show respect for ourselves; we set a precedent for future interpersonal relationships that strengthens our communication skills and attitudes toward mental health.
How do we set healthy boundaries?
It’s vital to remember that setting boundaries usually feels uncomfortable and selfish at first. It’s human nature to want to present our best selves to others at all times, even if that means prioritizing their wants and needs over ours. But in order to properly tend to the needs of those we care about, we have to take care of ourselves first–even before our closest friends or family members.
When we’re ready to push beyond the misplaced feelings of guilt and take that next step, we have to set aside time to sit with ourselves and our emotions. How do we presently feel about ourselves? How do we want to feel about ourselves? How do we want others to make us feel? These thought-provoking questions provide a motive and rationale for cultivating clear boundaries.
Once our boundaries are set, the next step is effectively communicating with others. Effective communication entails assertiveness, clarity, and purpose. Being direct while showing respect for others results in a clearly delivered message that preserves our values and defines them to others.
Boundaries should also be matched with consequences when necessary. It’s important to know when to emotionally distance ourselves from a conversation or physically distance ourselves from those hurting us. And we need to be able to stand our ground and uphold these consequences out of respect for our mental and emotional health.
What do healthy boundaries look like around the holidays?
Again, the holidays welcome the endless potential for cheerful festivities and rekindlings of relationships. Unfortunately, with these opportunities comes the potential for boundaries to be crossed, especially by those nearest and dearest to us. Knowing this, here are some scenarios that may play out this season and how we can respond.
You are invited to your third celebratory potluck + Secret Santa of the month. We are programmed to believe that saying “yes” to invitations is always the correct response, but this could lead to an overextension of our time and resources, ultimately leading to burnout. Instead of agreeing to make an appearance at an event that you don’t actually feel capable of attending, firmly and politely communicate a “no.” If your family and friends respect you, they will respect your decision too.
A possible response: “I’m looking forward to spending time with you as soon as things calm down a bit for me. To ensure I have enough energy without overwhelming myself, I am going to have to pass on this event even though I really would love to attend.”
You find yourself at a dinner table, and someone comments on the choice of food on your plate. You can acknowledge their concern for you while expressing that their words are not helpful and that you would appreciate it if the comments stopped.
A possible response: “I recognize that you love and support me, but I’m not asking for your advice right now. It isn’t helpful, so I’d like to talk about something else.”
You have been getting ahead on projects and working extra hours so you can fully enjoy the holiday time off you requested. You planned a self-care day for yourself, but your significant other planned to take you out on a surprise day date. While you appreciate the thought and effort, you were really looking forward to recentering your energy and focusing on your mental health. You’d prefer to follow through with your original plans.
A possible response: “Thank you for taking the time and energy to plan this for me. I’d like us to always be honest with each other about our needs, and I need this time for myself right now so that I can be my best self as we spend the holidays together. Can we go on this date another day instead?”
Reminders when setting and practicing healthy boundaries
Healthy boundaries are not selfish. They allow us to meet others at an even level since one’s needs are not more important than another’s.
We need to persistently check in with ourselves to identify our needs and evaluate how much energy we are willing to distribute.
Taking care of our mental health means taking care of our physical and nutritional health. Literature shows that ensuring adequate exercise and a balanced diet positively impacts our well-being.
It’s easy to put our needs aside during the holidays, but this season is about joy! So we need to make time to indulge in what brings us joy. Making time for ourselves by setting healthy boundaries allows us to put more energy into other necessary aspects of a healthy lifestyle. If you’re unsure about how to begin a holistic approach to healthy boundaries, book a one-on-one session with me! Together, we can create your dream lifestyle that’s attainable and sustainable throughout the holiday season and beyond.