How do you not let your family drive you crazy this holiday season? Boundaries. How can you find peace even though there’s so much going on during November and December? Boundaries. How can you enter the new year feeling refreshed and energized? Boundaries once again! If you’re looking for ease and joy this holiday season, I can help you get there, and there’s only one thing you need to focus on (you guessed it), boundaries! Today, I’m going to teach you my best tips for not just surviving, but thriving this holiday season.
When we’re with our families, especially around the holidays, it’s easy to get caught up in old emotional patterns. Yes, I’ve been a 40-year-old woman sulking like a teenager at my parent’s Thanksgiving table. You know the old saying, “It’s easy for our parents to push our buttons because they’re the ones who installed them!” And it wasn’t just my parents, I can remember being bratty with my brothers and snippy with my sister as if my 12-year-old self had come to dinner instead of me.
We develop emotional habits early and they can be hard to break. I’ve done a lot of therapy and attended a lot of workshops, seminars and retreats in my efforts to act, not react, when it comes to interacting with my family and friends, especially around the holidays, which can be triggering because there are so many added pressures (like we weren’t feeling like our plates were full already).
With or without family, this is also a time of pressure as our perfectionism and control issues come out (I have to invite everyone, and I have to cook the 17 dishes everyone requested)! It’s also a time when we’re often eating or drinking too much, over-spending and trying to be everywhere, looking amazing, with the perfect hostess gift in hand. What I’m trying to say is that there are generally a lot of “musts” and “have to’s” around the holiday season and not a lot of boundaries.
If you want to find connection, ease and joy instead this year, it’s time to get clear with your boundaries. There are two sets of boundaries I want you to focus on: the ones you make with yourself and the ones you say out loud to others.
Boundaries with Yourself
Having boundaries with yourself is the first priority. If you don’t get ahold of your guilt, perfectionism and control, no peace will be found.
Here are my suggestions:
- Have boundaries around your eating, drug/alcohol intake, and spending. These are three areas where it’s easy to throw up your hands and say, “It’s the holidays! I’m not going to worry about any of that until January 2nd!” This means that January is exhausting as you recover from too much of too many things.In any kind of potentially stressful situation, it’s important to keep your wits about you. Alcohol focuses emotions and makes them stronger, so drinking when you’re anxious will initially “take the edge off” but will soon create more stress (and you might say things with your lower inhibitions that exacerbate the situation). Eating too much does the same. Try not to check out and to be as present as possible.
- Make it a boundary or commitment to yourself that you’ll spend five minutes every morning calming yourself and getting centered. This could be time journaling, praying, meditating or taking a mindful walk outside, but commit to being grounded each and every day so you can be steadier and more calm heading into the holiday season.
- Schedule thoughtfully. You’re going to hate this, but I want you to get rid of those To-Do Lists for the holidays! I’ve talked about this before and I’m going to hammer it in your head until you start doing it. Right now, take that To-Do List and schedule it into your calendar. I mean everything. Shopping for the holiday party. How long will that take? When are you going to do it? Can you really get everything at one store, or do you need to make multiple stops? Schedule it all in. This is important because you’ll quickly see that you cannot get done everything you want to get done! You’ll see that you have too much on your plate! Being overwhelmed at the holidays is a choice. Start seeing it as one.
- Leave one thing out. I want you to treat the holidays like Coco Channel talked about accessorizing. She was famous for saying that, before you leave the house, take off one piece of jewelry. She knew that in the heat of decorating yourself, you were likely overdoing it (and she’s always right – I always like my outfit better when I take off one thing). I want you to be Coco Channel with all the things you’re planning around the holidays. Take one thing off your plate, each day, over the holiday season. As you look at your schedule (or to-do list if you haven’t listened to me), I want you to cross one thing off or delegate one more thing, every day. You’ll see that you said “yes” too quickly to too much, and this will help you immensely!
- Be mindful. Damn Abby, why can’t you leave the mindfulness alone?! You know why? Because it’s the key to acting, not reacting when your aunt starts grilling you about why you’re not married yet. Or when your dad starts in (again) about your job that doesn’t pay enough (even though they apparently wasted all that money on your college degree). Or when your sister starts acting competitively with you about your parenting (Oh, I’d never let my children eat sugar)!
Boundaries with Others
Creating boundaries with other people is next, and it’s really all about managing expectations.
Here are my suggestions:
- Have an exit plan at the ready for holiday gatherings. Set yourself up for success. You can say things like, “We’re coming from 6:00-8:00 pm,” or “I’m letting you know that I need to leave by 7:00 pm.” You can also bring a friend, a sponsor (if you’re trying to stay clean and sober around using family members), or anyone you deem helpful.
- Decide what you will and won’t talk about. One of the ways we get into trouble is by sharing too much of our lives with people who aren’t loving and supportive with that information. I’ve shared many times that I kept a list of safe topics and stories to share with my mom who would often be judgmental and critical. For example, if Max was doing poorly in school, I didn’t share that. Instead, I’d talk about how he was doing on his baseball team. When she’d push, “But how are his grades?” I’d say, “His grades are fine,” and then jump back into a safe topic. It’s also a good idea to have questions at the ready. People love to talk about themselves, and I’ve gotten through many dinners and events, never sharing a single thing about myself despite having long conversations with a multitude of people.If the conversation really steers off course into unwanted territory, my favorite thing to say is something like, “There are so many things I’d love to speak to you about and this isn’t one of them,” and then I launch into a new topic.
- Prepare people if needed. Another thing you can do is have pre-emptive conversations with people via direct conversations (phone or IRL) or via email. No texting with this please! I’ve shared before about a wonderful client I had who sent an email before a major holiday with her family stating in a lovely way that she wouldn’t be tolerating anyone commenting on her body or what she was eating. She made it clear that she would leave immediately if anyone crossed that boundary. Remember, a boundary has to have an action you will take if it’s trampled; otherwise, you’re just stating how you feel about something or what you’d like.In this same conversation you can outline what you will or won’t be doing. No, I won’t be picking up Aunt Harriet at the airport, but happy to reimburse for an Uber or car service. No, I won’t bring the turkey, but I’m happy to bring mashed potatoes and one dessert. Yes, I’m happy to come an hour early to help set up, but I need to leave right after dinner, so won’t be able to help clean up.
Be consistent, no matter what. Don’t threaten or warn. Just say what’s what for you and then follow through with action. Focus on your behavior, not your words. Stop talking and start doing. Let your actions speak for themselves. You can tell people your new boundary, but then let your actions do the talking after that. There’s no need to nag or be frustrated.
Let go of the idea that your mom, partner, brother or uncle needs to act a certain way. You can’t control them; you can only control you. This means you can’t be attached to their outcome, only your own. In other words, you can say everything perfectly, and the other person still might get upset! In fact, if your boundary is long overdue, you can count on them getting upset! Boundaries aren’t about controlling other people’s reactions. Your dad still might try to guilt trip you and your Uncle Roger might give you the cold shoulder. You should never alter your boundaries based on how other people act! This is about you and not hurting yourself in your efforts not to hurt others. And you’re not hurting them! They’re choosing how they’re reacting. They could just as easily be kind and understanding and they’re choosing not to be, so their reactions are about them, not you.