How to set and keep better boundaries this holiday

Give yourself permission to do less so you can experience more.

Give yourself permission to do less so you can experience more

a woman sitting in a living room on a couch, smiling and holding a mug. she's looking to something out of frame and there's a sparkling Christmas tree in the corner.
(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

The holidays are charged with high energy — good and bad. It can be fun to get into the festive spirit through tasty party spreads, gift-giving and general merriment. Yet, it can also be one of the most stressful times of year, with more to do and the added pressure of holiday spending, shopping for the right gifts, back-to-back social commitments and trying to create memorable moments with family and friends. 

We want to say yes to every request and meet every expectation so that the people in our lives don't feel disappointed. It's what relationship expert and psychotherapist Allison Villa calls "high stakes." It's that feeling of not wanting to let people down because we know they're holding a high regard for these special moments.

But saying yes when we want to say no can create resentment, increase tension and ultimately have the opposite effect of what's intended, which is to make merry moments. We spoke with the experts on how to let people down effectively, manage holiday demands and deal with pushback so you can have a truly happy holiday season.

Figure out what's important to you

We all have a limited amount of time during the holiday season, which also means a limited amount of energy to give. This means we need to prioritize what matters most. Whitby, Ont.-based relationship expert and psychotherapist Janna Comrie recommends that you first recognize what's important to you about the holidays. "Everybody has something that sort of stands out as the really important thing," she said. The key is to become aware of what things are most important to you and then schedule those things first. When other asks come your way, you can assess if they're realistic to commit to, Comrie advises, by asking yourself, "Is this something that's going to add or distract from my really important things?"

It's also about figuring out what you need from each specific relationship. Villa recommends spending some time thinking about your own needs and what makes you feel good. If you notice tension within yourself when faced with a new request, it may be worth exploring where that tension comes from — an action that can be helped, she says, by journaling, talking to your therapist or a trusted friend. The more clarity you have about what your needs are and what matters to you, the better you'll be able to set healthy boundaries.

Rethink what saying no means

Often people equate setting boundaries and saying no with not being kind — when that's the farthest from the truth. The most important thing that people can do, Villa explained, is to set "loving boundaries," because it prevents resentment. 

That includes self-imposed expectations, like trying to serve the perfect holiday feast, in the perfect-looking home, with perfectly-behaved family members. When things don't go as planned, disappointment arises. Villa asks, "How do you adjust your self-expectations?" and "Where can you find self-compassion?" What people want the most is to connect with one another during the holidays, "but if we're so busy doing all the things and trying to meet all these expectations, we're not really present in these moments," she said. It's about giving yourself permission to do less so you can experience more. 

Let people down with empathy

While some people may not take a no personally, others can. Being empathetic by acknowledging their request is key to letting people down gently, Comrie says. Saying something like "I know this is important to you, but I don't think, realistically, I'm going to be able to do a good job of that because I've got other things on my plate" is a good way to acknowledge the other person, while also setting reasonable expectations, she said. 

Your tone of voice and how you deliver your message are everything, says Villa. She suggests naming the uncomfortableness of not wanting to disappoint the other person by saying something like, "This is hard for me to say because I know we've done it this way for so long, but that's been weighing on me and I'm wondering if we can explore this instead."

Navigate pushback with humour and space

We've all encountered people in our lives who resort to guilt-tripping behaviour or coercion when they don't get their way. You say no but they interpret that as a maybe and continue to press. It can be difficult to maintain our boundaries in these situations. Comrie recommends introducing humour to deflect the situation. "I think it's one of the Minions movies, where one of the characters says, 'The attractiveness of the please does not change the answer,' because they're all there sitting going, 'Please, please, pretty please, pretty please.'" Comrie says, "If you can use a little bit of humour and stay firm in the no, oftentimes, that's the best way to handle it."

If the person continues to refuse to take no for an answer, it may help to give yourself some space before responding again. Villa suggests saying, "I want to have this conversation with you and I want to take a moment to respond because it will probably bring up a lot." She finds it helps to set a time to continue the conversation. You might say, for example, "Let's touch base tomorrow at 2 o'clock and we can discuss this further."

Be consistent and firm to avoid resentment

When it comes to stress responses, Villa explained, "we say fight, flight, freeze and to fawn — to fawn is to say yes to the people around us to please them." It's a way of coping to avoid conflict, putting other people's needs before our own, which doesn't serve the relationship. It would be impossible to meet the needs of every person in our lives, so it becomes a question of which relationships to spend energy on and where to meet in the middle, says Villa.

According to Comrie, you need to recognize that the other person's response shouldn't be a reason for doing something or not doing something. "You can't control how another person's going to respond, but what you can do is be as kind and direct as possible in saying yes or no to something." And don't beat around the bush, she added, because a maybe can sometimes be interpreted as a yes. 

Remember that you can't make everybody happy. "There's always going to be something," Comrie said. "And it's about recognizing that you're doing your best with what you've got."


Janet Ho is a writer and mental health advocate. You can learn more about her at

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