Guest Post by Laura Shultz, PsyD, ABPP
Watch the TV Interview here: https://www.actionnews5.com/2022/12/14/doctor-shares-tips-setting-boundaries/
“It’s the most wonderful time of the year
With the kids jingle belling
And everyone telling you be of good cheer
It’s the most wonderful time of the year!”
There are many magical moments in the holidays. We drive down streets flanked with sparkling lights, cheerful music fills every store in town, and even strangers smile towards one another and say “Happy Holidays.” It’s true that something really is different about the month of December. Yet, that “something” doesn’t always feel as good as the Andy Williams song portrays. In the midst of the tinsel and garland, so many of us find ourselves more stressed, spread thin, and heavy-hearted than any other time of year.
Our calendars are often more crowded. Expectations feel heavier, financially and socially. Work pressures and deadlines seem to mount towards the end of the year. In contrast, some of us are desperate for work, knowing that it is going to be hard to provide for our families in the way we wish we could during this season of supposed-abundance. Others notice their calendars are empty, illuminating their deep loneliness. And some of us are trying our best to muster a smile through our tears, well-aware of the aching in our heart created by the empty seat at the table, knowing the holidays just won’t feel the same way this year.
While “holiday cheer” may feel elusive to many, it is worth it for all of us to cultivate a posture of peace this holiday season. In order to do so, here are some tips that may help:
- Identify your “Reason for the Season.” First and foremost, before you put one more gift in your Amazon cart or hang one more ornament, stop for a moment and ask yourself WHY you are doing all of this preparation, planning, and work? We are the happiest when the actions we take align closely with that which is most important to us. So, taking time to identify the real “why” we are putting so much effort into the holiday season can be helpful in shifting our focus from the pressures of the holiday to that which really, deeply matters the most to us.
As a follower of Christ, this season to me is about the birth of our Savior, our one true hope in a chaotic world. It is the celebration of God’s grace towards me, that He loved me so much that He not only saved me eternally, but also chose to come in earthly form so that I could know with 100% confidence that there is no pain I will go through in this life that He himself has not personally encountered. When I dwell on the miracle of Christmas, it is not lost on me that it was into the utter darkness of night that our Jesus was born. In pitch black, in a humble manger, God let the light break through. Unto us, a Savior was born- the Prince of Peace. Turning my heart mindfully towards Him during this season, asking myself “is this action part of my act of worship or is this a distraction?” and earnestly seeking the answer can lead to peace.
I have secondary reasons for the season, of course. I love my family and friends and am so grateful to be able to spend time with them. But, to me, the primary focus of my energy and heart this season should be on honoring and worshipping my Savior. When we focus our minds and hearts on that which really matters to us the most, it helps us determine which specific holiday efforts align and which may be busyness that detracts from our peace.
- Be intentional about how you honor that which is the most important. We have so many traditions surrounding the holidays. Some of them have been passed down through generations of family and carry a plethora of memories and deep meaning that really enriches our lives. Perhaps you have a specific recipe you always cooked with your grandmother and even the smell of the ingredients simmering on the stove fills your heart with warm memories of those you love. Other holiday traditions may be just for fun, or perhaps they started out that way but have now become a burden or stress; for example, think Elf on the Shelf or coordinating matching family pajamas.
Just because you have “done it in the past,” does not mean you must continue doing it. Some “traditions” are more habitual than meaningful. After reflecting on and identifying your “reason for the season,” perhaps it would be helpful to assess which of your traditions reflect that reason and bring you joy and which seem to drain you. You might eliminate some traditions, or even decide to create new ones that better reflect that which is most important to you in this season.
For some of us, due to life circumstances and changes, you literally cannot engage with traditions in the same way that have been meaningful in the past. Maybe you moved to a new city this year and all of your favorite holiday places to go just aren’t there. Perhaps your adult children are celebrating with their friends or spouses and your table is going to be empty. Or maybe you have lost loved ones and the traditions you cultivated together would be too painful to try to replicate in their absence. In these cases also, it is so important to reflect again on what about those traditions was the most meaningful? This might take some thoughtful creativity on your part, but could you create a new tradition that incorporates that specific meaning?
If you’re thinking, “but, it won’t feel the same,” when you read this, you are correct. It won’t feel the same, but that is okay! If you eliminate those habitual practices which now feel heavy, perhaps you will feel free. And if you create new traditions in light of different circumstances in your life, hopefully you can capture the value/meaning that is so important to you and maybe even share it with others in a new way.
- Let go of perfectionism. Many of us get caught up in making sure our Christmas card looks a specific way or we have just the right presents under the tree. We can quickly be overwhelmed when comparing the lights on our house to our neighbor’s house or making sure every wrinkle is out of our dress before heading to that holiday party. Guess what? No one else will notice if the angel on the top of the tree is crooked or if there is a typo in your Christmas letter. But, this striving for perfectionism steals our peace. Instead of picking yourself apart for all that you did not do perfectly this holiday season, how about reflecting on what you did do well?
Philippians 4:8 is one of my favorite verses. Take a moment to read and meditate on it today, but in sum, it says “let your mind dwell on that which is GOOD!” For those of us who struggle with perfectionism (totally pointing at myself!), it is easiest to notice the mistakes we make and the ways we fail. But, sure enough, when our mind dwells on all that is wrong, we feel pretty lousy. But if we train our mind to notice and dwell on the good, we will indeed walk in peace! I think Paul was giving us some pretty good advice to us here. Maybe you didn’t get to cook the ham and sides this year and you have to order pizza, but hey, you have a meal and a warm home to enjoy it in. Perhaps the dress wasn’t wrinkle free when you left for the party, but celebrate…. you made it to the party!
- Give yourself the gift of healthy boundaries. Holidays frequently mean gathering with extended family members and friends whom we may not have seen in quite a while. For many of us, this might mean intrusive or judgmental conversations or even pressure to act or speak in a certain way that is contrary to our values. As Elizabeth Gilbert said, “Family knows how to push your buttons because they installed them.”
This is where the concept of “healthy boundaries” is so crucial to protecting your peace during the holidays. What is a “boundary?” Boundaries, almost like a fence around our metaphorical yard, help identify where I end and you begin. We can have physical boundaries and emotional boundaries and both are helpful for our overall well-being. Healthy boundaries reflect the values, needs, and principles you set for yourself. A violation of those boundaries occurs when someone disrespects, ignores, or maybe isn’t aware of your principles or personal needs.
In order to establish healthy interpersonal boundaries, clear communication is key. Be kind, but assertive and communicate boundaries up front. For example, you might tell your aunt, with whom you frequently have tense political disagreements, “Before I come to dinner, I want to let you know that I am not going to discuss anything political this year. If a political topic comes up, I will simply not respond.” In this example, you are communicating your boundary very clearly, sharing your guide for yourself without judgment of the other person. One good way to remember how to set a loving, healthy boundary is this: Say what you mean. Mean what you say. Don’t say it meanly.
I will never forget the Christmas season of 2012. Jim and I had been battling infertility for some time. We were out shopping for presents and I just had this anxiety ache in my stomach. When I stopped to identify the cause, I realized I was dreading going home. I knew I was going to be asked for the thousandth time by well-intentioned loved ones, “when are y’all going to have kids?” You see, they didn’t know about the painful infertility journey we were immersed in. So, standing in that shopping mall, amidst all the hustle and bustle, I decided to call my parents and clearly share a boundary. I shared with them a bit of my pain, and asked them to please not bring up when we were having children during our upcoming visit home. Thankfully, they were very receptive and I was able to enjoy a peaceful holiday, knowing that my boundary would be respected.
In addition to interpersonal boundaries, we can set healthy boundaries for ourselves too. This season, for example, we might set a boundary for ourselves in terms of how many desserts we will eat or with our holiday spending budget. For example, determine what you can afford for gift giving this year and stick to it! Your friends and family will feel loved even if gifts might be smaller, and you will give yourself the gift of peace by setting boundaries for your shopping.
- Give yourself the gift of feeling. To practice peace this holiday season, allow yourself to feel all that arises. The Bible is replete with examples of Jesus experiencing strong, and sometimes very hard emotions. As we are made in His image, we can conclude that our emotions are natural and from our Lord. The more we experience our feelings, the more we reflect the fullness of who He made us to be.
On some days, in some moments, you will feel as warm and content as the cup of hot cocoa in your hands. But in other moments, you may be flooded with harder emotions because loss, separations, changes in family dynamics, and financial pressures do indeed just feel heavier this time of year. When we attempt to run from the harder feelings and stuff them down, they will inevitably pop back up. Like leaves that fall on a running stream, we can choose to allow the feelings to come and then naturally flow by, or we can attempt to build a dam to stop them. But when we do that, they back up, creating a bigger mess when the water overflows out of the sides. So, this holiday season, in order to experience peace, you must feel. In the magical moments described by Andy Williams and the challenging ones that we all deep in our soul know exist- choose to feel… and know that all of those feelings (yes, even the ugly ones) are okay.
The holidays truly are wonderful and hard all at once. In the midst of this, we protect our peace when we find and meditate on the true reason for the season, when we align our traditions and activities around that which matters to us most, when we let go of the pressures of perfectionism that steal our joy, and when we give ourselves the gifts of healthy boundaries and emotions. Be kind to yourself this season, and may you have a peaceful celebration of the birth of our King!