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Lived Experiences: Setting Boundaries This Holiday

December 23, 2022

a person sized hole cut out of a barbed wire fence that is also made of Christmas lights, translates as someone escaping feeling trapped in or by the holidays

Amy Mauro

Kelly adores the magic of Christmas. 

In the midst of dark New England winters, her tree decorated with ornaments and colorful strands of lights bring her joy. She cherishes the quiet moments of the season, when she feels a special kind of love for her family.

But not every holiday season has felt special for Kelly. 

The following story is not a case example but a story from a real individual resulting from a candid conversation. Her name has been protected to protect her anonymity.

How might people struggle with their mental health during the holiday season?

For many years, Kelly dreaded Christmas day and the holiday stress that followed. Her guilt and anxiety increased when someone was hurt or disappointed due to unmet expectations.

Divorced parents and a high-conflict stepmother thrust Kelly into the role of mediator to both families. 

Often left feeling under-appreciated and guilty, Kelly wondered what she could do or say to rekindle her love for the season.

The holidays can cause stress, sadness, and grief, even though many of us wish to be happy and share good cheer.

Between long-standing traditions, unfair expectations, and complicated emotions, the holidays are not always easy for us to navigate.

How can mental health therapy improve your holidays?

Through working with a therapist, Kelly learned that she was not alone in her experience. She worked through her feelings of guilt and learned how to set boundaries with her family members. 

The holidays transformed into a time of peace and happiness when she began to build healthier relationships with herself and others.

Dealing with family stress

Kelly was introduced to Beth, her stepmother, when she was a junior in high school. 

An average student, with a small cohort of chorus friends, Kelly wanted to be liked by Beth.

More than anything, Kelly wanted her dad to be happy. It had been several years since her parents divorce, and her dad needed another person to take care of him. 

Kelly spent time and energy with her new family while still living with her mom. She invited them to her chorus concerts, visited for dinners, and divided her holiday’s into two. 

Nothing Kelly did could please Beth, who asserted herself as the parent in charge. She got involved in parenting choices, blamed Kelly’s mom, and criticized Kelly for not staying with her father.

Beth instilled fear and shame in the household, and distanced Kelly from her dad.

Dysfunction during the holidays

Despite their clashing personalities, Kelly agreed to tolerate Christmas dinner with Beth and her dad. 

The holidays are about family and creating new traditions, she thought.

Beth attacked Kelly for celebrating Christmas morning with her mom, ignored her personal boundaries, and left her feeling guilty and hurt.

Kelly looked to her dad for support but he remained quiet behind Beth.

Seeking support

As time went on, Kelly approached the holidays with dread and anxiety. She felt like she was walking on eggshells around Beth, bracing herself for a backhanded comment or attack. 

Kelly’s dad suggested that she reach out to a professional therapist for support.

Kelly’s therapist taught her about boundaries after Kelly shared stories of her boundaries being crossed by Beth.

Beth was aware of problems with her relationships, but she didn’t understand she could make positive changes. She considered herself as a people pleaser, often overextending herself for other people’s wants and needs. 

Saying no to people didn’t come naturally to Kelly, but over time she learned to care for herself. 

Therapy sessions involved untangling the knots of dysfunctional boundaries, and addressing Kelly’s thoughts and behaviors within the context of her relationships.

Kelly’s therapist helped her set up proper boundaries for positive reasons, not to punish or quiet her relatives. She encouraged Kelly to reflect on her beliefs about the holidays, and helped her create new traditions that represented those beliefs.

Setting boundaries with her family members

Kelly approached the next holiday season with more confidence in her decision making. 

She decided to spend Christmas morning with her mom, and the afternoon with her dad and Beth. Through respecting her needs and communicating her boundaries to her family members, Kelly instilled respect in the household. 

When Beth challenged her boundaries, Kelly made it clear that she wasn’t going to tolerate abuse. She stood up for herself and stuck to non-negotiable rules, like leaving the dinner table when Beth instigated an argument. Kelly decided that she wasn’t going to force herself into a family system that was hurting her. 

When Kelly listened to her feelings and shared them with her family, she strengthened her relationship with her father. He eventually confronted Beth’s abusive patterns, and ended their relationship.

The holidays moving forward

Kelly’s holidays have transformed into a time of peace and joy. She spends the day with both parents, and in-laws, under one roof.

Kelly’s maturity inspired her parents to build healthy boundaries and create common ground.

The takeaway

Familial relationships can be difficult to navigate during the holidays, especially when you’re dealing with dysfunctional family members and drama. 

The heightened stress between you and your loved ones can distance your relationships, and discourage you from spending the holidays together. 

If you dread and worry about the holidays, get help from a mental health expert.

At Handel Behavioral Health we make it easy to find a therapist who fits your needs and schedule. Our mental health professionals treat a wide range of mental health challenges, including depression, anxiety, personality disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder and trauma, grief and loss, substance-use-disorder, among others.

We serve the entire community of Massachusetts, with offices in Amherst, Franklin, West Springfield, and Wilbraham Massachusetts. We also offer online teletherapy services to fit your schedule and preferences. 

Please call us today at 413-343-4357 to schedule an appointment with one of our experienced therapists.

About The Author

Nettie Hoagland Headshot

Nettie Hoagland is a writer with experience in local news reporting, nonprofit communications, and community development. She earned her bachelor of arts degree in Media Studies, Journalism, and Digital Arts from Saint Michael’s College in Vermont. Nettie believes in the healing power of the arts to create connection and community. She is passionate about using writing as an instrument for personal and social growth in the field of mental health. She is currently based in Brooklyn, NY.