Setting Holiday Boundaries (even when it's hard)

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Boundaries can be helpful in grief, but they can also just be helpful during the complicated and draining holiday season. Even without grief, the holiday season can prove tough. There is the pressure of things being festive. There's family and all the love and all the complications that come with family. There are expectations that can feel like too much. Grief aside, it can be helpful for all people to set clear holiday boundaries and limits. It can also be important to remind yourself to show yourself kindness and self-compassion.

When setting boundaries is new, some family members might bristle or accuse you of being mean, harsh, or selfish. Boundaries can be an adjustment! You can read our comprehensive post on grief boundaries here if you're new to boundaries. Remember, if your family is working together to create a culture that respects one another's needs and doesn't demand over-extension or harmful self-sacrifice, boundaries are simply a way of communicating, understanding, and respecting one another's needs. Though holiday boundaries, reminders, limits, and self-compassion will look different for everyone, they can sound like:

Holiday boundaries and limits:

  • I'd love to come by for dinner, but I can only stay for 2 hours.
  • I'm happy to host this year, but I'm not going to cook or take menu requests. I'll be buying everything pre-made. If there is anything specific you'd like, dietary restrictions you have, or you'd like homemade please bring it with you!
  • Thank you so much for the invite. It sounds lovely, but I can't make it. I'd still appreciate an invitation in the future, I'm just not up for it this year.
  • I've worked hard on my relationship with food and my body this year. I won't engage with any discussions about my body, weight, portion sizes, or calories.
  • I'm uncomfortable talking about politics or my relationship status, so I'd like us to take those off the table for discussion this year. Is there anything anyone else wants to ask us to steer clear of talking about? Or any other holiday boundaries we should discuss?
  • I need a little break - I'm going to go for a walk. I'll be back in a bit.
  • I'm going to drive separately in case I want to leave before you're ready.
  • We've decided not to have alcohol in the house this year for the holidays and ask that no one brings any. We'll have plenty of great food and non-alcoholic drinks. I'd still love to have you for the celebration as usual, but if you don't feel comfortable with that I understand if you decide to celebrate elsewhere.
  • I know that gift-giving has been an important tradition in our family, but I am experiencing a lot of stress around it this year. I'm going to remove myself from participating and would ask that no one buy me gifts either. I know it is hard when someone bows-out of tradition, but I need to do this to take care of my mental health and well-being this year.

Reminders and self-compassion:

  • Remember that it is not your job to meet everyone else's holiday wants at your own expense. You might disappoint people, but people can handle disappointment. People might disappoint you, but you can handle disappointment. Just because everyone wants you to stay for 12 hours and bring your homemade mashed potatoes doesn't mean you have to. If you stay for two hours and bring store-bought mashed potatoes everyone will survive. I promise.
  • Compromise is okay, and being honest about your limits to compromising holiday boundaries is okay. That might sound like "I'm happy to compromise some on this, but that ask still feels like more than I can bend. Is there any other option that will work for you?".
  • The holidays are a great time to reach out to those people who offered help at the time of your loss. That might sound like, "hey, I don't have any holiday plans this year - could I join in with your celebration" or "hey, I'm going to be hanging at home by myself this year for the holidays. I don't want to join anyone else's celebration, but I'm not sure how hard or easy the day will be, so it would be great to make tentative plans to get together the next day if you're around". Or, "I'm struggling getting my holiday meal made. Do you have time to come by and help?"
  • You're welcome to share the rationale for your holiday boundaries - sometimes that is helpful. But remember, no one is entitled to your rationale if you aren't comfortable sharing. People can honor your and respect your holiday boundaries even when they don't understand them.
  • It's okay if you feel guilty when you first start sharing your needs. Guilt doesn't always mean we've done something bad. Sometimes it simply means we've been asked to prioritize others' wants and needs at the expense of our own for so long that when we finally assert our own needs we process it as having done something "wrong". Taking care of your well-being while still respecting others is not wrong. Boundaries just take practice!
  • Remember, boundaries are for YOU not for other people. They are to take care of yourself and for you to know your limits and how you will protect them. You cannot control how others respond to your holiday boundaries (or any boundaries!). All you can do is be honest and direct about your needs and respectful of theirs. And remember, to quote an old (but accurate) cliche, the people who struggle the most to respect your boundaries are often those who have taken advantage of your not having any.
  • Grief is hard. You're allowed to take a break from the holidays or certain holiday traditions. You're also allowed to then revisit them in the future and create new traditions.
  • There are lots of great resources for setting, expressing, and maintaining boundaries. One expert we love on this topic is Nedra Tawwab.
  • It's okay to enjoy the holidays! Remember, your connection to your loved one does not live in your pain. It lives in your love for them, your memories, and the way they live on in your life. It can be easy to feel guilt for enjoying things they aren't here to enjoy. Acknowledge that feeling, but remember that your grief and the love for the person (or people) you've lost can live right alongside your joy.
We invite you to share your experiences, questions, and resource suggestions with the WYG community in the discussion section below.

We invite you to share your experiences, questions, and resource suggestions with the WYG community in the discussion section below.

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One Comment on "Setting Holiday Boundaries (even when it's hard)"

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  1. Carmella kupfer  December 8, 2021 at 6:54 pm Reply

    Trying to get through this terrible time of the year with broken heart after the death of my son who was the light o my life a fter death of my husband. I am grieving for so many things. Not only the deaths but also my way of life.

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