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Social Boundaries and Holiday Health: Caring for Yourself and Others

It has been said for many years that the holiday season comes earlier every year. Stores are flooded with festive merchandise before Halloween is even over. Songs and hymns such as the old familiar tune “It’s the most wonderful time of the year” play in stores, offices and on radio stations. Invitations are sent to seasonal parties and celebrations, sometimes bringing together those who have not convened since the previous holiday season. While many cultures observe a variety of meaningful customs and traditions throughout the season, it can be a difficult time for many people who might need some space and quiet moments to process thoughts and emotions that arise each year at this time.

For some, the holiday season is a time that floods us with memories of those we love but see no longer. In other cases, some may yearn for what the holidays used to be, only to find that their current situation is far from the picture that is painted by their memories and desires. When considering the present, you may also find that the holidays can be a difficult experience because you feel exposed to situations with family and friends that you would otherwise not associate with due to histories of unpleasant expectations or interactions. Despite these challenges, many will still attempt to participate in holiday festivities, even at the risk of facing challenging circumstances that come with the season.

With all of this in mind, we might ask ourselves two questions:

1. How can I show my love and care for others, while still ensuring that I am taking care of my own needs and desires?
2. How can I still show my love and care for others this time of year, while respecting their needs and desires?

A major component relevant for both of these questions is the acknowledgment and maintenance of healthy social boundaries. According to Merriam-Webster, a boundary is “something that indicates or fixes a limit or extent.” In the case of social boundaries, limitations are being placed upon what an individual feels comfortable or willing to endure or participate in. Boundaries may be set for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, people may be unwilling to engage in certain activities or festivities due to an unpleasant family history. Other times, there may be a desire to observe a boundary due to various beliefs or values, particularly when religious considerations are a part of the equation. Regardless of the reason or intention to place and observe a social boundary, the most appropriate thing to do would be to demonstrate respect for others by observing their established boundaries.

Social boundaries can be an instrumental tool when working to maintain your mental health throughout the holiday season. However, the concern remains as to how you can observe both your own social boundaries and the boundaries of others. While there are countless
different factors that may come to mind and change the circumstances, here are a few factors that may be helpful when implementing your own social boundaries and the boundaries of others.

When implementing your own social boundaries:

• Identify and order your priorities
• Decide what you are and are not willing to engage in
• Plan to set your boundaries early

When observing the social boundaries of others:

• Recognize the other’s perspective
• Ask to understand, not to persuade
• Understand that no means no

Social boundaries can sometimes feel like an unwelcome guest at a party. However, the presence of a social boundary could make all the difference in the world to the person who is putting it in place. If someone feels guilt or remorse about upholding their own boundary, they might find comfort in looking to the boundary as a tool that enables them to have a more appropriate experience throughout the holiday season, and at other times, given their own individual circumstances.

Similarly, someone observing the boundaries of another may find that by choosing to recognize and respect that person’s boundaries, they are treating them in a manner that they have asked to be treated and respecting their wishes. Setting and keeping healthy social boundaries can prove to be an invaluable tool that helps all enjoy the best possible experiences both during the holiday season and all year long.

Thomas Bradshaw, LMSW is an outpatient therapist with Brook Lane. He received a Bachelor of Arts in Religion from American Public University and a Master of Social Work from Walden University. Thomas enjoys working with clients facing a variety of circumstances, including those with anxiety, depression, and ADHD-related concerns. A major clinical interest for Thomas is the integration of a client’s spirituality in the therapeutic process.