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Maintaining Relational Boundaries During the Holiday Season

winter trees

The autumn and winter seasons often include extra contact with immediate family members, extended family members, and family friends. While this may bring forward feelings of warmth and reconnection for some, for others it can be a time filled with stress, the reopening of old wounds, and falling back into old behavioral patterns.

Understanding and creating personal boundaries, especially in a time of increased stress and loss, are often an essential part of a person’s therapeutic work. Relational boundaries are defined as personal guidelines and limits created to outline safe ways of interacting with or relating to others. While you may have spent the whole year working on defining, establishing, and maintaining healthy boundaries with the members of your family, close circle of friends, work colleagues, or partners, what happens when it comes time to interact with family members or family friends who you only see a few times a year? Here are some tips to help establish and maintain boundaries during the Holiday season:

1) Check in with yourself, then communicate

Before entering a space where we can engage in boundary setting over the Holidays, we need to be sure that we have a clear understanding of what parts of ourselves we want honored and protected that may feel at risk. Take some intentional time before any gatherings to ask yourself what your boundaries for these settings are. This may include whether or not you feel safe traveling this year, certain topics you feel uncomfortable discussing, aspects of your life you wish to keep private, or rituals or traditions you want to sit back from. Try your best to be honest with yourself about your needs and limits, and be specific about what the boundaries you want honored are. Once you’ve taken the time to really know and understand what your boundaries are, you can work to communicate them when the time comes.

2) Have a plan for pushback 

While deciding on your boundaries and communicating them an an important step, it’s also essential to have an action plan for when people question them, push them, or bypass them entirely. Also take into account that you may not have as much time to establish boundaries with these people in the same way you do with people you interact with regularly. Take time before these events to decide what your plan of action might be, and give yourself permission to act on it if you need to. Whether this means turning to a trusted person present for support when your buttons are being pushed, having a space to duck away to for a breather, or leaving an event entirely, having a plan of how to handle the testing of your boundaries can make coping with the experience feel more manageable in the moment. 

3) Recognize your agency, while giving yourself grace

Ultimately, boundaries are about honoring your needs and acknowledging your own personal agency. Know that while you have needs that deserve to be honored and that you have some power in taking steps towards protecting them, don’t hold onto the expectation that you’ll get it right every single time. Acknowledge that even small steps and attempts at recognizing and honoring your boundaries is progress, regardless of the outcome. 

Samantha Waldman (she/her) is a NYC-based psychotherapist and a Bridges Co-Founder. One of her passions in her work and education has been exploring biracial or multiracial identity, multiethnic identity, transracial adoption, and Asian-diaspora identity. Samantha currently works as a member of the Intuitive Healing Psychotherapy team and was trained at Teachers College, Columbia University.