How to Set Boundaries Over the Holidays

Around late October, many of my clients begin to relate personal tales of trepidation over family gatherings during the holidays. A strain in a relationship comes to the forefront, begging to be addressed despite the longstanding history of suppression and neglect. Painful feelings emerge as memories are recalled with no real resolution in sight. One is left with the reality that the other person is unlikely to change, forcing a certain degree of acceptance over what is.

So, how do you work your way through the tangled maze of emotions and survive the holidays? Let’s look at a few simple things that you can do to help you get through this time of year with a greater sense of peace so that you can enjoy this time of year…or at least get through it in one piece!

What is ideal?

Close your eyes. Ask yourself: in an ideal scenario (given what is and that someone else is not going to change), what do you want things look like? This will inform you of your ultimate goal, so that you can work toward it. Once you identify the best scenario possible, you can begin to map out the steps that you need to take to make it happen. Maybe it isn’t hosting at your home, but proposing a new tradition with a clear start or end time or at a location where you can easily make your exit when you’ve had enough! Perhaps it is coming up with an activity (i.e., a game) at family gatherings so that the focus is on a common goal or laughing together rather than talking. A good rule of thumb is to think about maximizing the strengths or the things that you love about the other person or within the family, while reducing the downside or the opportunity for things to go awry.

Hard vs. Soft Boundaries

A hard boundary is confronting someone directly, informing them that a line may not be crossed. Setting a hard boundary is an important skill to develop whether it is needed in a personal or professional context. However, there are many scenarios where a hard boundary can make things worse, especially in an unhealthy or abusive relationship. In these instances, it is important to develop some less overt ways of self-protection. Examples of this are changing the subject, making an excuse to disengage or get away, or having a set period of time that you spend with that person, rather than leaving it open ended or up to them. With a soft boundary, the other person will likely remain unaware that you are setting a boundary, but you will feel better knowing that there are limits to the interaction.

You Can Count on Yourself

You must keep in mind that you can’t count on the other person to change, but you can count on yourself. Assuming that another person will change will only lead to further anger, disappointment, and hurt when you don’t get the reaction that you need. Instead, focus on tending to your needs, whether that be taking a walk to get a breather, changing the subject, or standing up for yourself without any expectation of the other person’s response. As you develop greater trust in yourself to handle whatever comes your way (and having a good game plan going in helps), you will feel less anxious and stressed over what someone else does or doesn’t do.

Take care of yourself this holiday season,

Avery Neal



Avery Neal, PhD is a practicing psychotherapist, international author and speaker. In 2012 she opened Women’s Therapy Clinic, which offers psychiatric and counseling support to women. She specializes in depression and anxiety at all stages in a woman’s life.

Dr. Neal is the author of, If He’s So Great, Why Do I Feel So Bad?: Recognizing and Overcoming Subtle Abuse, which has been translated and published in twelve languages. Her articles and interviews have been published by, American Counseling Association, Counseling Today, BookTrib, Best Self Magazine, Hitched Magazine, Bustle, POPSUGAR and PKWY Magazine, and her courses have been taken by over 18,000 people worldwide. The International Association of HealthCare Professionals nominated her as one of the top psychologists in Houston.