The most wonderful time of the year is full of real-life magic, connection, love, hope — and at the same time, it can also be a season of loads of stress. The holidays can be overwhelming for a lot of people, even people who love the season. How do we manage stressors so we can fully revel in wintry joy?
Whether you’re facing fraught family tension, overbearing relatives, issues with inlaws, or a few too many parties on a packed calendar (or just the opposite), boundary setting is a chief mental health strategy that’ll help you get through the more difficult times this season. We consulted mental health professionals to get the best tips and tools to make this your happiest, healthiest holiday yet.
“Boundary setting is more important than people realize,” said Dr. Kevin Gilliland, Psy.D, a clinical psychologist based in Austin, TX. “You have way more control than you think you do.”
Los Angeles based therapist Jennifer Musselman, MA, LMFT, emphasized this as well and noted that this boundary-setting doesn’t happen overnight. “Setting boundaries with family members can be difficult, so adherence over time is necessary to imprint lasting change,” she said.
Tip 1: If you don’t want to go, then don’t go!
Dr. Gilliland emphasizes your personal power and the power of choice. Are you going because you think you have to? There’s a popular joke among mental health professionals and therapists that goes, “Stop shoulding yourself” or “Stop shoulding all over yourself.”
As my own therapist tells me, “‘Should’ serves us well in childhood, but not so much in adulthood.” Let go of these feelings of obligation and go to things you want to go to.
Tip 2: If you “have to go,” place some limits
Dr. Gilliland humored us with this one — what if there really is a serious obligation (read: it would be a major dick move to ghost someone who was counting on you to come, or you can’t bail on your in-laws). “How long do you have to stay?” he asks. Consider placing a hard limit on time so you feel more comfortable.
Additionally, go over what your reason is for leaving — your “out,” if you will. “What is the ‘reason’ [that you’re telling people] why you only have a little time? It doesn’t have to be some therapy session of full disclosure (which is ridiculous by the way) — it can be a number of things that are probably true.” Consider the following (very realistic) options: “You have things to do around the house, things to do for school or work, or you are going to spend time with a friend.”
Dr. Gilliland warns you to be prepared for resistance, but to be strong anyway. “Yes, they will give you a hard time or be “upset,” but you are trying to manage a very difficult situation, and sometimes we have to make the best bad choice that’s available.” Also consider: you’re not responsible for the emotions and emotional reactions of others.
Tip 3: Give yourself permission to leave or take a break
On the note of that last tip, much of your exit strategy comes down to you giving yourself permission to leave. That said, you don’t have to leave completely to step out and get some air. “Show up and engage in family functions for a limited time,” said Musselman. “Give yourself permission to leave an hour and a half in, or to take a 45-minute walk or run during an all-day family event.”
Use this to get out of any uncomfortable situations. “If a family member challenges you on it, don't fight back,” she advised. “Simply state: ‘We simply don't agree. I will be back at X-time," or, "I've had a great time, and now it's time for me to leave." This allows you to be the bigger person and keep yourself from getting too emotionally charged or upset.
Tip 4: Limit your topics of conversation
“Remember, just because you have a thought does not mean that you have to share it,” said Dr. Gilliland. “If you have a family member who doesn’t understand or respect boundaries, then you may need to ‘help’ them by not giving them the information they can’t handle appropriately.”
For instance, if you have a parent or relative who is critical of your work or dating life, limit what you say and how much information you divulge. You don’t have to answer everything; come up with a reply beforehand that makes you more comfortable and effectively ends that topic of conversation. “If they have a history of disrespecting boundaries, then be vague or limit what you disclose. There are lots of creative ways to do this,” he explained, noting that politicians are great examples for “a lesson in not answering.” Reminder: “be creative and polite.”
Tip 5: Prepare your partner
Do you have a significant other in the mix? Give them a rundown early and be communicative beforehand. “Both spouses should discuss what they need before hitting up the holiday circuit,” said Musselman. “What do they need, for themselves and from each other? A wife might need to feel backed-up by her husband and to intervene when his mom starts to get critical. A husband might need to ‘check-out’ mentally from the festivities with a sitcom break or ‘run to the store.’ Create a code word that just the two of you know that asserts your needs in those moments.”
Tip 6: Make a plan with your family
Again, communication — in advance — is key. “Where possible, create a needs alignment with your family before you spend the holidays together,” suggested Musselman. “Agree from the outset: what's the one thing each person needs to support you on in order to make the day or trip enjoyable for you?”
If the option is available to you, have each family member read their agreement aloud. “[Set] group rules like no eye-rolling or complaining,” she said. “Everyone gets one [rule], and everyone agrees to honor all the rules. This, of course, is difficult with extreme issues like addiction [ie, X family member doesn’t drink alcohol this weekend] and should be carefully decided if this will work in your household.”
Tip 7: Disengage
Even with the best planning and boundary setting, things can get heated. The plan? Don’t react (or stop the reaction and get yourself out of there. “When you start to feel your heart race or you get warm or stiff, trust it's your body's alarm to danger,” said Musselman. “Remove yourself from the trigger. When you start to feel yourself getting pulled into a heated argument, disengage. Don't stomp off; rather, calmly excuse yourself.”