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  • 19 December 2023
  • 7 months

Setting Healthy Boundaries During the Holidays

Irene van der Zande

Kidpower Executive Director and Founder

Are you feeling stressed about the holidays?

Are you worried about conflicts with family members or friends causing problems?

Do you have a hard time balancing your work life and your personal life?

Every person who has listened to our Workplace Options podcast interview Setting Healthy Boundaries for the Holidays says they have found solutions for these issues and more!

Host Christy McGuire is the Workplace Options VP of Business Solutions – and an engaging and inspiring interviewer.

Together, we discuss the common problems faced by many people during this busy time of year – and practice how to protect our wellbeing by speaking up and setting boundaries with ourselves and others.

Here are the highlights of our lively discussion.

1.  This time of year often comes with an overwhelming number of tasks, responsibilities, to-do lists, setting goals for the new year, and not enough time to get things done! What are healthy boundaries? And why are they particularly important for our overall health and wellbeing?

We ALL have the power to set healthy boundaries so that we can create:

  • more joy,
  • less stress,
  • stronger relationships, and
  • greater success in accomplishing our

A boundary is like a fence – it defines a limit between one place and another.

We can see fences, which makes them easy to recognize. Personal boundaries are often invisible – until they are crossed.

For example, suppose you are joking with friends and suddenly someone makes a rude remark about how you look. That feeling of, “Ouch. That’s not funny. That hurts!” is a signal that your personal boundary just got crossed.

Healthy boundaries help us to take action to support our wellbeing in ways that are respectful of others.

Unhealthy boundaries cause us to get down on ourselves, do too much, please someone at our expense, and/or put unreasonable demands on others.

This is why our challenge is to set boundaries first with OURSELVES, and then with everyone else.

Good fences make good neighbors – and setting healthy boundaries prepares us to make safe and wise choices about what we are going to say and do – within ourselves and with everyone else.

We can practice our boundary-setting skills during the holidays – and use them for the rest of our lives!

2.  Self-care is so important during this busy time, and we may feel guilty when we prioritize our own wellbeing, especially if others have different expectations. How can individuals prioritize self- care during the holiday season and what role do boundaries play in the process?

Trying to fulfill everyone’s wishes and make everyone happy is a recipe for overwhelm, irritation, and stress.

When we don’t take good care of ourselves, it is much harder to meet the needs of others. We truly have the power to set boundaries within ourselves by choosing to:

  • Reduce our own expectations instead of trying to do things the same ways as we’ve always
  • Turn off the news so we can enjoy the here and now rather than focusing on all the bad things happening in our
  • Do LESS!
  • Accept that others might be

Fear of disappointing someone is a huge emotional trigger for many people.

You can decide to do things differently this year – and communicate these boundaries to each other.

For example, if buying presents for everyone takes too much time and money, then you can let people know, “This year, we won’t be giving presents for everyone. Instead, we’d like to donate some money in your name to a charity. Is there a charity that is especially important to you?”

What if someone says, “I’m getting you a beautiful present you will love! If I don’t get a special present from you this year, then this means that you don’t love me.”

You can say, “I’m sorry you feel that way because I love you a lot. And, not buying a lot of presents is what works for me this year.”

One year, I decided to make life simple and gave each of the adults in our family one lottery ticket with a cute note. Everyone ended up loving it.

Imagine that you tell your family, “I am not up to hosting a big dinner. Someone else can host and I’ll bring a dish. Or we can do a potluck at my house.”

Suppose someone is very disappointed and says, “But we are all really counting on you. Your dinners are such an important tradition for all our family. Don’t you care about us anymore?”

You can set boundaries with yourself by choosing not to get angry or defensive and instead practice saying cheerfully, “I love our family, and I will enjoy our time together more if I don’t make dinner.”

Suppose someone asks you to do something. Instead of immediately saying yes, take some time to think, and say, “Let me think about that and get back to you,”

Practice makes it possible to do it in the moment!

Inside your head, imagine I’m a friend who is saying, “Please! Will you help me with this? You’re SO good at this!”

Instead of agreeing or worrying about not agreeing, you can hit the pause button and say, “Thank you, I’ve got a lot on my plate, so let me get back to you once I’ve had time to think about it.”

Accept people’s disappointment with kindness without feeling guilty or defensive. If you decide not to travel to a family gathering, you can tell everyone, “I’m sorry you’re disappointed. I love you – AND, I just can’t do it this year.”

3.  The holidays are a wonderful season for spending time with family and friends. Unfortunately, holiday gatherings can sometimes lead to upsetting feelings and stressful conflicts. What are 3 common problems and some tools and boundaries that we can be prepared to use to manage these situations?

After a very stressful family gathering long ago, I started asking people what their experiences were. My favorite comment was, “I love my family to pieces, and I break out in hives every time we get together.”

Often people harbor upset, negative feelings long after an event. Our goal is to find our common ground of caring for each other, deepening connection, and having a good time.

People get upset with each other about:

  • Rudeness – disrespectful remarks, mean jokes, and intrusive
  • Bitter arguments about political or religious
  • Perceived unfairness about how much people are helping with time or money, such as cleaning up, how costs are shared, choices of restaurants or places to

It’s normal to hope that what has happened before won’t happen again. At Kidpower, we call just hoping that a problem won’t happen or will go away, The Wishing Technique – and it usually doesn’t work.

If someone always does something difficult, make a plan in advance and PRACTICE it. If possible, include other family members and friends in the plan so that you can work together.

Rather than being in a constant state of upset, you can do your best to be in a constant state of community.

Just as you can set boundaries about people not smoking indoors, you can also set boundaries about avoiding upsetting topics and asking people not to talk about politics. Be prepared that people will cross this boundary!

Here are some ways of taking charge of the conversation:

  • Instead of waiting for someone to finish their rant or to stop giving you unwanted advice, interrupt and change the subject right away. You can say, “Excuse me, how was your vacation?” Then, set a boundary if they keep going with the same
  • Avoid hooks and don’t feel like you need to answer loaded questions. Suppose someone asks, “What do you think about this very hot button topic?” You can say, “I am not going to wade into those waters. Let’s talk about something “
  • Instead of getting upset, you can make a cheerful remark and then leave. Suppose someone always picks on you about your looks, child rearing, or choice of work. For example, they might say, “What an ugly shirt!” You can say cheerfully, “Thank you for telling …………………………………………………. I’m going to get some pie.”
  • Ignore what was said and talk with someone else. If someone says something very disrespectful, ignore it and pretend to talk to someone next to you. For example, you might say, “Sally, is that pumpkin pie over there? Can you cut me a slice? I’ll come get “

Accept that something is likely to go wrong no matter how good a job you did. Instead of getting upset, you can focus on what went well.

One of our Kidpower safety skills for managing emotional triggers is the “That’s NOT True!” Technique. Suppose you say to yourself or someone else says, “Everything was spoiled because we had an argument.” You can make a fence with your hands and say out loud, “That’s not true.”

If you want to work things out, communicate about issues by voice instead of text or email. Written messages can be misused and are often misunderstood. Have a family zoom meeting instead.

4.  What advice do you have for someone who feels torn between work-related responsibilities and personal commitments during the holiday season?

Decide far ahead of time what your priorities are during this holiday season – do you want to spend time with family, get some rest, go into nature, or get work done?

Look back at past holidays and see what you wished you had done in prior years. Decide to make space for the things that you WANT to do.

There will always be too much work to do. Remember that people you care about will NOT always be here – and children will grow up and might NOT always want to spend the holidays with you.

Identify what gets in the way of having time for yourself. Common reasons are last minute emergencies, wanting to get just one more thing done, or having a demanding boss.

You might have a workplace culture that expects everyone to drop everything in their personal lives to get things done on their jobs. This can be especially hard for people who are not in charge.

You can give lots of notice, preferably in writing, and communicate your situation in a respectful way. For example, you might explain to your boss, “I will not be available during the week between Christmas and New Year’s because this is the only time I can see people who are coming from far away. What can I prepare to do now so that my absence won’t cause problems for you at that time?”

This strategy can work for other times of the year as well. For example, “I will not be reachable by phone or text during my vacation this summer because I really need time to rest and recharge. When is the best time for me to be gone?”

Planning ahead in this way will communicate that you ARE a team player and you DO care – AND that you are committed to doing a great job AND to making time to take care of yourself.

5.  What self-care practices do you personally find effective during the holidays, and how can our listeners incorporate those into their routines?

Worrying about what might go wrong over and over again just causes a lot of stress without making anything better. I have learned that you can sometimes manage your worried inner voice by telling it that you’ve heard it and now it is time to STOP!

You can practice by imagining something you are worried about and then saying out loud to yourself, “STOP! I am going to think about something else!”

Sometimes writing worries down helps to let them go.

  • Make a list of the worst that might happen including every single problem you can think
  • Now make a list of the best that might
  • Put the worst list in a special place so it can be
  • Now put your energy into focusing on the BEST that can

I can be my best self when I am able to recognize and manage my emotional triggers. Triggers are thoughts, words, gestures, smells, or other catalysts that suddenly cause our minds to flood with feelings, both positive and negative. Being flooded with feelings makes it harder to make wise and safe choices for ourselves and others.

Especially when things are not perfect, take a moment in the middle of chaos to appreciate what IS. Long ago, my two children were arguing and saying really mean things to each other. Instead of letting myself get annoyed, I pulled them onto my lap, one on each knee, and started rubbing their backs, and let myself just be happy that they could still both fit, even if barely.

They kept trading insults for a few minutes until my son asked, in a very puzzled voice, “WHAT are you doing, Mom?” When you have your creative, argumentative, opinionated, diverse loved ones with you, hug them if they’ll let you and just enjoy being together.

We can replace resentment with compassion by accepting that some people cannot help it when they say or do awful things. I have wasted so much time and energy and caused myself so much misery by being outraged and blaming important people in my life for their hurtful behavior.

I now choose to believe that their own emotional triggers and lack of skills are making it too hard for them to act in a kinder, more respectful way. This approach helps me to have far more peace within myself.

Think of someone in your life – maybe a parent, child, boss, colleague, or friend – who gets upset and makes really mean remarks.

Say out loud to yourself, “They cannot HELP it – I am SO lucky that I am someone who CAN.”

Take charge of your time. Imagine you are at a gathering, and someone corners you with endless stories – bragging about accomplishments or complaining in detail about medical problems.

Instead of feeling stuck or annoyed, you can listen for as long as seems okay for you – and then interrupt. Say cheerfully, “This is SO interesting, and I need to go help our host.” And then, with a kind smile, LEAVE!

Rehearsing makes it much more likely that you will be ready to use these strategies when you need them. By taking a problem- solving approach to past issues or difficult situations, you can decide how you want to deal with these in the future. If you feel stuck, PRACTICE out loud what you want to say and do – maybe in front of a mirror or with a friend.

6.  These are great tactics for dealing with problems in the moment. What if someone makes us really angry? How do we deal with our feelings of anger? How do we get those thoughts out of our minds? Can we suppress them?

Suppressing thoughts and feelings by just trying to push them down might work for a little while but eventually increases the pressure. For our own wellbeing, we need to find ways to let the anger go.

As tempting as it might be, don’t vent with your family who might spread stories around in ways that can make things worse.

Instead, try to find a safe person who will listen to your frustration, hurt, and anger without adding their own feelings or opinions, and who will keep what you share confidential.

Later, once you are feeling calm, you might choose to try to work things out. Be prepared to raise the issue without blaming the other person. For example, you might say, “I really care about you AND what happened at our holiday gathering didn’t work for me. Let’s agree to avoid controversial topics and just enjoy spending time with each other as a family.”

Most people don’t like being told what to do, so be prepared for a negative reaction. Suppose the person says, “I was just giving my opinion. You’re making a big deal out of nothing.”

You can be prepared with a positive response, such as, “I understand it seems that way to you – and, in order for me to enjoy being with you, it is important that we don’t get into big arguments.”

The next time this person starts picking fights, you can decide to leave with kindness.

You can also create stories or make images for yourself to free you from your upset feelings. Once I was full of RAGE at a member of my family. I finally realized that carrying so much rage was making me sick. I imagined sending that fierce anger up to the sun and told myself that this energy would power it for the next 10,000 years. And, oddly, it worked!

7.  Everybody needs to learn how to do this! Are there any tools or resources you can recommend for our listeners looking to improve their boundary-setting skills?

Visit or our extensive resources about boundary-setting, emotional safety and positive communication skills. Here are some articles many people have found to be very useful:

If you have a question or suggestion about how to handle a specific problem, you can also contact us at

Workplace Options helps employees balance their work, family, and personal needs to become healthier, happier, and more productive, both personally and professionally. The company’s world-class employee support, effectiveness, and wellbeing services provide information, resources, referrals, and consultation on a variety of issues ranging from dependent care and stress management to clinical services and wellness programs. Contact us to learn more. 

This content is intended for general information only. It does not provide specific direction, advice, or recommendations. You may wish to contact an appropriate professional for questions concerning your particular situation.

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