Coping with Holiday Stress — Families that Put the Fun in Dysfunction

’Tis the time of year for crackling fires, amazing smells coming out of the kitchen, laughter, and family-togetherness. Well, at least, that’s what the made-for-TV movies want us to think.

For a lot of us, though, who come from families that were dysfunctional and abusive, family gatherings are a source of extreme stress and anticipatory anxiety. Gathering some resources to help us navigate is vitally important to surviving the holidays: you get to choose your level of involvement and how you frame it for yourself. You matter!

Setting Boundaries

I get questions from clients all the time about how to start to set boundaries, what to do if someone continues to crash through them, how to “make” the other person abide by them.

Setting boundaries is hard, so please cut yourself some slack. As you start to practice setting boundaries, you will get more comfortable with it. It’s very uncomfortable at first, and that’s okay. We are starting to do something that we’ve spent years — decades, perhaps — not doing! There is going to be a learning curve, so please tell your inner critic that your kind, inner coach says “shup, you are doing great just trying!”

There is a misconception that boundaries are to get someone else to do or stop doing a behavior, to stop treating us in a way that is harmful and hurtful. In reality, any boundaries you set are all about what you will allow and what you won’t tolerate. When we set boundaries, we are saying we value ourselves enough to say “no” and stop accepting the harmful behavior.


The incredible irony of boundary-setting is that when you set them with people who are pretty healthy emotionally, they automatically accept and respect them. Who knew!? I spent years not setting boundaries: my family of origin taught me that I didn’t get to have an opinion on my own life. When I started to set boundaries — and, wow, did I bumble around for a long time practicing — non-toxic people accepted them with kindness and grace. I was blown away.

It’s when we are setting boundaries in the context of an unhealthy relationship, when the other person fights them, crashes over them, it’s a sign that perhaps this isn’t a person we should be investing our time and energy in, and we get to exercise our voice and choice.

So how do we know what our boundaries are? Our emotions. Our senses. Our nervous system reaction. In short, how we feel.

I love observing my emotions. Emotions are somatic, from body to brain; they’re raw data from the body and its unconscious, so we can’t control them. Our feelings stem from emotions, which is amazing because it’s like getting a personalized report on yourself at any given moment. The physical sensations in the body let us know what is happening.

Here’s an example of boundary-setting and subsequent crashing: Aunt Betty wants you to leave work to take her grocery shopping next Wednesday during the workday, and everything in you rises up and says, “what! I can’t, I have no vacation left,” etc. That’s your body to brain, letting you know you want to say “no.” If you are watching your window of capacity, you may feel some activation.

Here is the good news. We are not powerless in this situation. We have options. But what we can’t do, is control how someone else responds to our boundary. We can, however, note and absorb that their response is giving us a ton of information about them, which is helpful in discerning who is safe and who isn’t. Remember: it’s all about emotional and nervous system safety.


When people minimize and push back on boundaries you are setting in a clear and direct way, out comes the dysfunction.

So Aunt Betty pushes back, says something like, “oh, c’mon it’s only a couple hours; you can afford to miss work, I saw that new car you are driving, Spendy; you know I can’t drive because of my arthritis; I can’t believe you won’t help me; that’s not what a good niece does,” etc. (There are a lot of ways people crash boundaries, some overt and some covert, some complete gaslighting; these are just a few things that could be said, and they’re all shaming.)

What are your options, as she says some of these things and you feel shame rise up (because it’s going to, it’s part of the human condition).

  • Resetting the boundary. This can look like repeating verbatim what you stated earlier or adapting it. This does not have to include over-explaining your position.
  • “No.” That’s a complete sentence. If you are getting pretty good at setting boundaries, you may want to try this. You get to say “no” and then nothing else. The other person may sputter and gaslight and try to convince you to do what they want you to do, but you still don’t have to say anything more.
  • Remove yourself. “Oh, thanks for the chat, Aunt Betty, I see Uncle Joe over there,” or you can simply excuse yourself to the restroom to reset your nervous system. Let your answer stand and then get out of there. There’s no shame in doing this: it’s actually great to walk through it, and it’s very empowering.
  • Statements of re-direct, such as asking questions about them. Say you don’t want to just remove yourself, and that you want to practice your skills even more. You can ask about work, kids, hobbies, anything to re-direct. Sometimes the person will go with the re-direction and sometimes not; if they circle back to what they are trying to get you to do or be, you still get to choose your response.

Side note: Don’t forget to soothe your young parts since they may be jumping around freaking out, as this is super uncomfortable for them and they may be feeling a lot of shame when you set boundaries.

Lastly, on the question of how to “get” someone to respect your boundary.

If we are listening to our emotions rise up in the body, a common one to emerge is anger, and a lot of survivors don’t know what to do with that, as they have been conditioned by abuse to not express it, not to feel it, and to vilify it.

The purpose of anger is to let us know when our boundaries have been crossed. It’s the emotional response to an external stimulus.


Back to Aunt Betty: you’ve set the boundary, remained calm, and heard her answer, which was push-back. You start to feel anger rise up at the things she’s ranting about: they aren’t true, how can she say that, why isn’t she listening to me... How can you make her understand your boundaries and stop pushing?

You can’t.

We can’t control other people’s reactions. Aunt Betty has an agenda, and I’m pretty sure at this point her agenda is all about what she wants and she is not looking out for you.

You can, however, let her have her own reaction and make your choices from there. We get to choose.

I have a general rule of thumb I utilize in situations like these. I will set the boundary, reset it once if necessary, and then walk away.

This gives me a lot of information on the other person, and I get to then evaluate how much or how little I want to interact. Maybe this is someone with a long history of pushing on my boundaries and my body is telling my brain, “yeah, we are done.” I get to sit with that, figure out what I want to do, and be kind to myself.

And, let them sit in their stuff, because, at the end of the day, I refuse to take on anyone else’s shame or blame. I get to make mistakes and go from there, but when someone has a history of rupture without repair, then I am setting myself up to be hurt and taken advantage of, if I let them take advantage of me or otherwise not honor my boundaries. It’s all about what we will allow and learning to value self.

I am not responsible for what other people think of me or my decisions.


When people give us lots of information about themselves, their patterns, their reaction to shame, and their behaviors, we get to choose if they are safe to emotionally invest in or not. If they are not, it can be little contact or no contact: you have the power to choose.

Acknowledge your feelings first, voice your truth if you feel safe doing so (always keeping an eye on your window of capacity and potential activation in nervous system) while gently maintaining intrapersonal bridge/attunement with self and valuing self, because your own needs matter!

What happens if a gentle approach doesn’t work?

“Gentle assertiveness” is a term I like to use in relation to setting boundaries. We don’t have to compromise who we are, insult someone else, or be defensive. We can work on just stating our truth with gentleness and self-compassion.

If the other person gets insulting, defensive, or shows anger, it can be powerful and empowering for you to say something like, “I get that you are upset, but trying to convince me to do something I don’t want to do isn’t going to work.”

This topic may have to be a series, as the next piece of setting boundaries is self-care and well-worth a whole article!

I hope you are taking good care of yourself today, nurturing you. You deserve to heal! You matter.