Five Healthy Holiday Boundaries for Givers

David J from Alingsås, Sweden [via Wikimedia Commons]
Source: David J from Alingsås, Sweden [via Wikimedia Commons]

Having good boundaries around our giving and doing for others is a persistent challenge for many of us (see my book Unhealthy Helping: A Psychological Guide to Overcoming Codependency, Enabling, and Other Dysfunctional Giving). This challenge is kicked up during the holidays. After all, the holidays are supposed to be about giving and spending time with family and friends so there are high expectations for our selflessness and generosity, some placed on us by others, but many placed on ourselves. Trying to meet those expectations can challenge our emotional, physical, and financial resources. 

Holiday boundary setting is one solution but admittedly, it’s complicated. When our holiday role is to make the season “merry and bright” for everyone else, setting boundaries comes with the fear of disappointing others and “ruining” their holiday.

Holiday boundary setting is further complicated when we fear it will create relational conflict (e.g., our parent will be upset if we don’t show up for cherished holiday rituals). When we can’t stand the thought of someone being mad or disappointed in us, or thinking we’re selfish, we can let that interfere with setting needed holiday boundaries.  

Perfectionism is also the enemy of health holiday boundary setting. People that want to do everything they feel the holidays demand, and that want everything to be “just so,” are in danger of exceeding their physical, emotional, and financial resources.

So where does this leave the giving person at the holidays? Here are five things you can do to set healthy holiday boundaries.

1.    Take an inventory of all you feel you must do and start pruning. Ask yourself: “Realistically, what boundaries can I set that won’t ruin the holiday and will keep me from exhaustion and/or resentment? What can I leave out, delegate, or pay someone else to do?” Critically examine the "shoulding" and "musting" (e.g.,"I must…" "I should…") that leads to feeling overwhelmed. Chances are that a little critical examination will help you recognize these aren’t the absolutes you’ve been thinking.

2. Counter your perfectionism and lower your standards. As a recovering holiday perfectionist, I have to remind myself regularly that “good enough” is good enough for a lovely holiday! Most people won’t even notice or care if you kick it down a notch, and if they do, they’re usually supportive of our taking better care of ourselves if we explain in a simple and direct non-blaming way.

3. If you worry about people getting mad at you or judging you, remind yourself that most people will accept your holiday boundaries (if they even notice that you’ve cut back). If they get persnickety, they will get over it, usually pretty quickly. Remind yourself: “Their anger/judgment/disappontment is unfortunate and I wish it weren’t so, but I can handle it, and they’ll get over it. I need this boundary because [insert reasons here].”

4.    If you feel guilty, counter your guilt with affirmations like these ones: 

“It’s ridiculous to insist to myself that cutting back or lowering my standards will ruin the holidays.”

“I know they may be disappointed if I don’t [fill in the blank], but it’s better than overextending myself, feeling resentful, or being irritable, and if I explain, they’ll probably understand.”

“I know that I’ve always done X, Y, and Z, but things change, and we can have new traditions.”

“My resentment makes me irritable and the holidays unpleasant. These boundaries are needed for everybody’s sake.”

“It’s good for others to take up the holiday slack. It doesn’t have to be entirely up to me to make the holidays merry and bright for everyone else.”

5.     Strengthen your boundaries by reminding yourself of the costs of doing too much. “What are the emotional, physical, and relationship costs of trying to live up to my/others’ holiday expectations? Are these costs really necessary? Are they really worth it? 

For more on holiday boundaries see:

Holiday Strategies for Dealing with Difficult Family Members

Estrangement Distress: The Unwelcome Holiday Present

Preventing Trouble With Houseguests

Holiday Boundaries (Practical assertiveness tips for saying "no" at the holidays)

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Are your high standards and giving nature creating holiday stress?
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Already feeling overwhelmed by holiday demands? Setting limits on what you do during the holiday season can help keep your holidays merry and bright.
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