With the holiday season in full swing, it’s time to make sure we are setting healthy boundaries for ourselves and our families. We’ve talked with a few of our Lifeway Women team members who were able to give us a few different perspectives.
What does it mean to set boundaries?
- Boundaries are guidelines that set safe, reasonable, and permissible limits.
- A boundary can be a decision one makes about what is or is not acceptable to him/her in a relationship or situation. As it relates to the holidays, an example might be, “I am only going to accept one invitation to a Christmas function per week,” or “I’m going to communicate in advance to my family at Thanksgiving the two dishes I am bringing and not feel bad about not cooking the entire meal. Another could be about a relationship such as, “If my mother-in-law complains about my cooking again this year, I will be kind to myself by …” Setting boundaries for the holidays can help guard against becoming overwhelmed.
What are some examples of boundaries we can use during the holidays?
- In addition to the extra gatherings we might put on our calendar, we also block time on our calendar for rest. Then if we decide to add something later, we have margin built in.
- Set reasonable limits on gift giving or purchasing.
- If you are the one who always does all of the cooking and prep for the family, maybe create assignments for other family members to help out with the big meals.
What are emotional boundaries?
- You are not responsible for the feelings of others. And you are not responsible if they enjoy the holiday. During the holidays DO NOT:
- Let others’ reactions dictate your feelings and emotions;
- Please others to the point that you sacrifice your own needs;
- Blame others for your problems;
- Take on the problems of others or accept responsibility for their issues.
- Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend, in their classic book Boundaries, describe emotional distance in boundaries as a “temporary boundary to give your heart the space it needs to be safe; it is never a permanent way of living.”1 This concept can definitely apply to the holidays since a family gathering of this kind is temporary. If a specific family member or friend is hard for you or on you, it’s okay to distance yourself from him/her in a low key way to protect your heart.
How do you set healthy boundaries with family?
- Know what settings trigger emotions and who tend to be the people who stir up stress, negativity, or strife. Limit the time you are with these emotionally-charged individuals and settings.
- Introverts and extroverts need different amounts of time with family and friends. Respect their differences and remember your own needs.
- We hosted the larger extended family for Christmas every 2–3 years. We called it Christmas Camp, and we would plan days with meals and activities. Several years we had fifteen or more people at our home for 4–5 days. When you have a large group with people sleeping on air mattresses in every corner, and you need to feed them, it can be a major ordeal. You really need to plan. However, you can do it and not spend a lot of money. We would take all the kids to a park and take a picnic for lunch if the weather cooperated. We would have specific time planned for walks, movies, games, or making cookies. The goal was to provide time for everyone to have meaningful conversations and memories.
- With 2020 and all the COVID-19 restrictions, be aware of the health issues and distancing needed at gatherings. Use COVID-19 as the excuse if needed. You really have a free pass this year!
How do you juggle the expectations of friends and family during the holidays?
- We have put a few traditions in place that we look forward to; everything else is gravy! We plan in advance to put up the tree and decorate together on either the Friday or Saturday after Thanksgiving. This long-standing tradition kicks off Christmas for us. In one day we decorate, bake cookies, listen to Christmas music, address Christmas cards, and watch a Christmas movie. We may not see one another the rest of the month, but that one day is full of memories and joy.
- With all my kids living in three different states, we may or may not be together on holidays. It is what it is. We’ve adjusted expectations accordingly and are thankful for any time we can have together.
- I’ve had to learn to say no, or my favorite phrase, “That is not going to work for me.” I’ve had to learn to set boundaries because no one else is going to do that for me.
Why is it hard to set boundaries?
- Oftentimes there are so many great opportunities available during the holidays—parties, programs, ways to give—things that you might not do any other time during the year. We gather with people we may not see during other times during the year. And usually, we have some holiday or vacation time available—but it doesn’t mean we have to fill every moment. It is understandable that we don’t want to miss making the holidays special and memorable. Therefore, when we see an empty calendar, we start filling in the days. Ultimately, we fail to leave margin for unexpected invites or time needed for rest.
- We usually want to make holidays a joyful time. We want to make sure those around us are happy. But sometimes overplanning and activity brings exhaustion rather than joy.
- We want everyone to be happy and no one’s feelings to be hurt. We want everyone to feel welcomed. In reality, putting boundaries in place can feel harsh or unkind, but in the long run, boundaries can help keep the peace and the peace of mind when many different expectations and personalities are in play in a family gathering.
What advice would you give to someone who finds it difficult to maintain healthy boundaries?
- Ask yourself these questions:
- Am I making this decision to please God or please others? (Remember God should be first in your life!) Do I really want to do this, or is it just one more thing on the list?
- Does this option focus on Christ or consumerism at Christmas?
- If you could only do one extra thing per week between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, what would you choose? Would this be the one thing I would choose for this week?
- How is this activity or choice bringing me closer to Christ?
- One of the best phrases you can use is, “That is not going to work for me.” It is a polite way to say no. You do not have to give the reason but only the simple answer that whatever you are being invited to or asked to do is not going to work for you. Try it!
- Think about what may have bothered you in the holidays last year and write out a few boundaries in advance that make you feel safe in settings where you may have felt vulnerable or overwhelmed in the past. A boundary can be like a goal for yourself. You could begin by writing a goal and then writing a boundary that will help you reach that goal.
1. Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend, Boundaries (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008).