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  • Writer's pictureMegan Korthals

Tips for Setting Boundaries During the Holidays

Now that the holidays are upon us, the topic of boundaries is an almost daily occurrence during our counseling sessions. Questions such as:

How do I know whether or not to attend this gathering?

How do I maintain the work I have done to heal my past hurts while surrounded by the very people who hurt me?

How do I engage with other’s who may function differently than I do or believe differently?

Most people find it incredibly challenging to not only identify—but also implement—boundaries in the context of family holiday gatherings. I find this to be the source of significant distress for many of my clients.

In my experience, boundary setting begins with two main questions:

Question #1: What Do I Need?

My personal favorite definition of a boundary: where something or someone ends, and something or someone else begins. Cloud and Townsend like to use the analogy of a fence, boundaries signify where my land ends, and someone else’s land begins.

With this in mind, the core skill required to set and maintain a boundary is a self-awareness into your own internal, emotional, needs. After all, how do I know where ‘my land’ ends if I don’t know who I am or what I need? Those of us who struggle to know what we need generally also find it hard to set boundaries. If you are struggling to answer that first question – What do I need? – this is the strongest indicator that you could benefit from therapy.

In the context of an upcoming gathering, it is important to reflect on both your physical and emotional needs. Examples of physical needs would be identifying how much sleep you need or perhaps what type of food or drink you need or want. Emotional needs are a bit more challenging. For these, you want to reflect on what you are hoping for emotionally from the people you will gather with. For example, it is not uncommon to need to feel valued or accepted by the loved ones we will gather with.

Once you have reflected on what you need in the context of your upcoming holiday gatherings, you can move on to the next question…

Question #2: Is this event/and or person capable of understanding, respecting, or meeting my need?

Once you have identified what you need, both physically and emotionally, ask yourself if the people you will be gathering with are “safe” people. A safe person is someone who is able to actively listen to your requests and responds will openness and respect. If you identify that those around you are safe, you can practice assertiveness in the following way…

1. Make a positive statement

2. State how you feel and offer your solution and/or boundary.

For example, let’s say you have a food allergy and you determine that you need certain foods to be available in order to feel your best physically. Your assertive statement to the host may be: “Thank you so much for being willing to host us and putting so much effort into providing delicious food for us. I have discovered I have a food allergy and it is important to my physical health that I eat _____ this holiday. Can I look over the menu before you purchase the food for Christmas dinner and request modifications to some items?”

Unfortunately, after we identify our needs, we sometimes find out that the people we would most like to meet those needs are not capable of doing so. It is common to desire care and acceptance from a loved one that is simply not able to give it in the way you would hope for or need. If this is the case, it is very important that we GRIEVE.

Ultimately, it is a deep loss to desire emotional connection with someone who can’t or won’t give it. Author and therapist Aundi Kolber once said it best: “Boundary work is often grief work.”

That’s a quote that may need to sink in for a bit…

Grief comes in waves, and the holidays are a common time to feel a surge in the wave of grief (see our blog post about Grief During The Holidays for more). You will need to first acknowledge grief’s impact on you, and then allow this to inform your boundaries. You may choose to set a stronger boundary with these people once you have identified that your emotional need may not be met as you would hope. This may look like either not attending the gathering, attending for shorter period of time, and/or exploring ways you can protect yourself emotionally while you are present, such as not discussing certain topics or being alone with certain people. Therapy can be really helpful in this process.

If you found these questions helpful, I have written a more extensive reflection guide with worksheets for both pre- and post- your holiday gathering that available on either my website or my etsy shop.


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