How to Set (and Keep) Boundaries during the Holidays

Does it ever feel like as the days get shorter our to-do lists get longer? With the end of the year and the beginning of the holiday season at our doorsteps, we often find ourselves with even more things to accomplish on top of our already sizable responsibilities – family gatherings, gifts, children’s holiday performances, office parties and more.

It’s no wonder that many of us quickly feel overwhelmed. One easier-said-than-done skill that has perennial value but takes on a particularly important role this time of year is setting healthy boundaries. When we have clear boundaries, we are more able to safeguard our own well-being while doing even more for others – and even find a little more joy in the holidays.

What are boundaries? And how might one go about making them? Read on to find out.

What are boundaries?

Boundaries are expectations for how we want to be (or not to be) treated. We can view them as the physical and emotional limits of appropriate behavior, or even what we need to feel secure and healthy. Having healthy boundaries is often associated with better mental health, higher self-esteem and a sense of self-control over one’s own life.

Here are a few common boundaries during the holiday season that might apply to you:

  • Deciding that you will end your work day at 5 p.m. and respond only to emergency emails after hours and on weekends.
  • Dividing up your holiday shopping list between family members so you aren’t responsible for buying everyone’s gifts on your own.
  • Communicating that you need to leave work at a certain time to attend your child’s music recital.
  • Expressing gratitude for having been invited to yet another holiday party, but that you’re needing to sit this one out.

Setting boundaries

There are many ways of thinking about boundary-setting, with different approaches depending on the context. No matter what kinds of situations you’re wanting to develop clearer boundaries for, there are some basic principles that can help.

  • Think about what you need. This is often the hardest part, especially for people who are used to putting their own needs last. Thinking about our own needs can also feel contrary to the holiday spirit, when we’re supposed to be thinking primarily about others. It is absolutely true, though, that we are much more able to take care of others when we take care of ourselves.
  • Be realistic about what you can do. You are a superhero, and this is a fact. Even the most capable superheroes, though, need help sometimes. Part of setting healthy boundaries is looking honestly at what you can do on your own and where another pair of hands or two might be needed.
  • Be reasonable about what you should be expected to do. Even if you are physically and emotionally able to handle everything yourself, should you really have to? Or would it be completely appropriate for family members, friends or co-workers to lend a hand? And, at the same time, are there expectations placed on you that you can politely decline? Saying “no” is one of the hardest things to do, so let’s get into how to set and communicate boundaries.

Communicating boundaries

Identifying boundaries is a great start, but it takes communicating and sticking with them to really see the benefit. Once you’ve identified some boundaries, it’s time to share them with others.

Three key words to keep in mind here are Clear, Calm and Kind.

  • Clear: Use simple, direct language. This increases the chances that you’ll be understood, and thus that your boundaries will be observed by others.
  • Calm: Speak with a comfortable, measured tone that communicates confidence and ease. Remember, what you’re saying is important and it deserves to be heard.
  • Kind: Try to assume that the other person is also doing their best and may be unaware of the ways in which they are impacting you negatively. They may also actually want to hear how they can support you and your new boundaries, so try to think of them as a potential ally – even if it doesn’t work out this way, it’s often helpful to start out on the right foot.

Ready to have a clear, calm, kind conversation about your boundaries? Here are a few more thoughts to keep in mind:

  • You set the tone for the conversation. This is an important conversation, and you deserve to have it go well. One way to help ensure this is to keep an even keel and avoid letting emotions completely take over. Of course, this is much easier said than done, so it may take some practice. Starting out calmly can often help the other person do the same. 
  • Frame your boundaries in terms of what you need rather than what the other person is doing wrong. Try to communicate in terms of what you need rather than placing responsibility on the other person. You may have heard about using “I” statements, which can shift the focus from the other person to your own needs in a helpful way. For example, explaining to a partner, “I feel overwhelmed when I’m expected to take care of all our gift shopping on top of ordinary responsibilities, so it would be helpful if you could pick up gifts for your parents.” This establishes a boundary about what you’re able to do, and asks for help in accomplishing your tasks together.
  • You can’t control others’ reactions, but you can control your own. It’s possible that, even when you do all you can to speak calmly without blaming the other person, they may get defensive or upset. Remember that you aren’t responsible for other people’s reactions, but you are responsible for how you handle your own emotions. Do your best to stay calm, even if the other person doesn’t.
  • Try not to over-explain the reasons for the boundary. Providing context about how you’re feeling and why this boundary is important to you can help the other person understand where you’re coming from. Offering too many reasons why this boundary is needed, though, can come across as apologetic or lacking certainty, which can make it more difficult for the other person to recognize this as something you actually need and deserve. They might interpret this conversation as a negotiation – and while it’s sometimes important to have flexibility in finding an arrangement that benefits everyone, there are some boundaries that have little room to budge, e.g., being treated with kindness and respect.

Keeping boundaries

Sometimes, it just takes one clear, calm, kind conversation to reset expectations between people and establish healthy boundaries going forward. Other times, regular maintenance might be needed to keep your boundaries defined and observed.

Check in with your own sense of your boundaries once in a while – Are they being respected, not only by other people but by you? Does anything need to be clarified or discussed again? If a boundary was recently breached, was it a one-off exception that seemed reasonable, or an ongoing problem? For example, if you were asked to work late one night to help resolve an urgent situation after you had clearly communicated the boundaries of your work day, was this a single instance or an ongoing pattern?

While it’s important to extend grace and patience to the people in our lives who are also doing their best, it can sometimes be necessary to refresh a boundary or two. This can resemble the initial process of identifying and communicating boundaries in the first place: determine what you need, with whom and in what context this applies, and then holding a clear, calm, kind conversation.

Talking about boundaries

Want to talk through what kinds of boundaries might be helpful in your life? Brainstorm some ways of revisiting boundaries that aren’t being observed?

WellPower has you covered: quickly connect with a professional counselor in minutes through our TherapyDirect service. No appointment needed, no program fees, no commitment to anything else. Just hop online anytime Monday – Friday, 9 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. at

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