Amy-Rose White MSW, CSW
The Holiday Season can be an especially difficult time to balance the needs and expectations of family and friends with our own. While joy and peace are considered inherent in many religious and cultural winter holidays and celebrations, these events often generate a fair amount of stress as well.
So what does it mean to have “healthy boundaries” during this time of year and why is it important? Many folks I work with have had some experiences early in life where the emotional and/or physical distance between family members was either too close or too far apart. Examples of this might be a family where everyone knows and discusses the intimate details of each other’s lives, often interfering at inappropriate times or a family in which problems were never discussed, affection was rarely displayed or there were strict rules for behavior followed by severe punishments for breaking the rules. Another common experience is when a child feels responsible for their parent’s troubles and comes to disregard their own wishes in hopes of pleasing their parents and thus feeling loved and accepted. As adults, people raised in this kind of family system often have difficulty knowing what their own needs are and during family gatherings, often find themselves feeling in the “child role” again, responsible for everyone else’s feelings, powerless, resentful, and angry.
Regardless of the family style you were raised in, it may be helpful to focus on simply noticing how you feel both emotionally and physically as holidays and events draw near. You may notice you are more tearful, irritable, or have tension in your chest or stomach. Taking time to breathe into these sensations and notice what you may have been thinking about or what upcoming event may be worrying you can help you clue into your own needs. For many, sad memories around holidays or grief around loved ones no longer with us surface at this time and these feelings deserve attention. I find it useful to remember that although my focus may be on making the holidays wonderful for my children, the unmet needs of my own “child-self” will emerge that are equally important.
It can be helpful to take some time to write down a list of what is truly important for you this holiday season. You may be expected at a large family dinner but feel exhausted and overwhelmed. Setting healthy holiday boundaries means giving yourself permission to say “no” and create rituals important to you and your partner, and/or children. Remember that as an adult, you have power and choices unavailable to you as a child. If cooking the turkey at Christmas is frustrating and daunting, give yourself permission to pick up three rotisserie chickens instead, or ask a friend to help.
Don’t be afraid to do things differently than in the past or experiment with simplifying meals and events. You’ll be amazed at how supportive those who care about you can be when we are brave enough to stop and focus on what really matters-our health, emotional well-being, and time with those we care about. If you find yourself saying yes too often, feeling overwhelmed and stuck in childhood patterns, please reach out for more support from friends or a counselor, practice saying “no” without guilt, and give yourself permission to make new and different choices about your own families’ holiday celebrations. Be gentle with yourself this time of year and all those around you will benefit.