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Dysfunction Interrupted-Setting Boundaries with Difficult Holiday Houseguests

Holidays are great celebrations of boundary breaking! Holidays are like the national “boundary breakers free-for-all.”

Family dysfunction is at an all time high and these are the things they make movies out of. Foods are brought to your home that you may not want or object to for some reason. People who are difficult enough to deal with on the telephone may now be staying in your home for a few days. If you’re a parent, gifts may be given to your children that you don’t approve of. The intruders are telling you and your children things you don’t want to know, and they’re asking you about things that you don’t want to share. Plus, they’re giving you advice on running your life, home, etc. Worse than that, you may have family members or in-laws who are downright insulting or verbally abusive. If you are already dealing with depression or anxiety these are the times that your symptoms can go through the roof.

If you grew up in a dysfunctional home or one that lacked boundaries it is likely that you may not be comfortable with or even understand the importance of them. Boundaries protect and take care of you, they define how you will behave and how you want others to behave around you.

You may feel that the moment you are all back together every dysfunctional pattern that you grew up with replays itself. And if you haven’t worked these things out or made boundaries for yourself around them it is probably true. You may feel like a child again reliving hurtful or stressful patterns that you dread.

When you honor your own boundaries you are living true to yourself and it feels good! When others refuse to pay attention or do not honor your boundaries it feels terrible. Many of you probably understand very well what it feels like to have your feelings and thoughts invalidated or ridiculed, to feel that any love coming your way had many conditions put upon it or even that nothing you did was good enough.

Here are a few tips for holiday boundary setting:

1. It is your house, you set the rules.

2. If your partner is not on board, making things difficult or full of conflict, and you haven’t had time to work it out beforehand, then you’ll have to set some inner boundaries to get through. Inner boundaries are when you decide not to allow things to get to you; you distance yourself emotionally from the offenders. You just look at them and hear “blah blah blah” or the teacher voice from the Charlie Brown cartoons. You may envision a shield of some sort separating you from them. Your goal is to remain peaceful and enjoy your holiday.

3. Decorate as you see fit, whatever you love looking at throughout the season. Never mind if it’s the best or the brightest in the neighborhood; it’s no good if the stress of doing it takes six years off your life. Put out Aunt Tillie’s ghastly decoration she gave you last year, it will make her feel good, and you also, as you have taken the “high road.” The very challenge of looking at it and knowing you are doing a good thing will give you gratification.

4. If gifts are given that you don’t approve of, calmly wait until after the holiday and donate them to charity. If the gift giver finds out, you can simply remind them that they were told not to bring those sorts of things into your home. Make sure you have told them first; people cannot honor boundaries if they don’t know what they are.

5. If foods are brought in that you wouldn’t normally allow and you have children, just remind your kids that you don’t eat those items. Then put them out anyway for the people who brought them. At the end of the meal, give them back to the givers to take home with them, reminding them that it will just go to waste in your home. Do this with a smile and thank them anyway. The goal is to feel good, not create a big deal. If they refuse to take them home, just throw it away. Everything doesn’t have to be a big battle.

6. My personal favorite are the temperature wars. If you like your house to be cool and get complaints about it from certain relatives, make sure to remind them pleasantly to bring a sweater or bundle up or whatever they need to do to be comfortable. You do not need to be roasting while you are already stressed, ovens are on and there are extra bodies heating up the place.

7. If the offenders sit at the table or in your home and begin to insult you, you have a couple choices depending on the situation. If there are no children and you cannot make them go home, you can get up from the table and say, “I prefer to go to the movies than sit here and be insulted.” Then go. You can also point out their behavior in case they think it’s just a joke, with something like: “I prefer not to sit here and be insulted; is there another topic someone would like to discuss?” If by then your partner is not on board, the problem is deeper than the relatives. If they’re your own relatives, it is usually easier to handle them. Tell them what they’re doing is upsetting; you’re not on earth to be the brunt of their abuse. Add that you’re not just extremely sensitive, and tell them they need to stop or there will be no more togetherness for the holidays. You would rather be in a dentist’s chair than sitting there with them.

8. Picture yourself as an angel looking down on the situation; can you see yourself sitting there being made fun of or insulted? Can you see your face? Can you see the pack of jackals sitting there enjoying themselves at your expense? You have to protect yourself. Get up from the table and remove yourself from their presence. No one was put on Earth to put up with abuse from mean-spirited and/or ignorant individuals.

9. Your other choice if it is tolerable is to simply tune them out, and tune in to the part of the day that you’re enjoying. Having the time off work, the food, the music, your own children, whatever brings you joy in that moment and allows you to look at them and just think, “What idiots!” “They aren’t going to bother me”.

10. If they’re your partner’s family, find something to do in another part of the house or go outside and do something. If you know ahead of time that they are problematic, have activities planned that get you away or get them away. Arrange for your partner to take them to an activity, for a ride, or to play cards with them while you cook dinner to keep them out of your kitchen.

Remember, the whole point of having boundaries is to put you in control of your life and the whole show. This is your life. When you’re clearly defined, it saves you a lot of trouble. There are many doors and obstacles that you don’t even have to deal with. The reason? Because your boundaries have already made them off limits.

Sometimes we have what I call dysfunctional thinking patterns that stem from dysfunctional backgrounds of al types. It is sometimes necessary to master them in order to feel good about or understand how to set good boundaries.

Dysfunction Interrupted-Setting Boundaries with Difficult Holiday Houseguests

Audrey Sherman, Ph.D.

Audrey Sherman is a psychologist, coach, speaker and author of the book Dysfunction Interrupted-How to Quickly Overcome Depression, Anxiety and Anger Starting Now. She is an expert in helping others to transform their lives by learning the elements of emotional success and overcoming the emotional baggage and dysfunctional patterns that keep them stuck in unhappy and unproductive lives, relationships and careers. She currently works with clients in person or via Skype or telephone. To learn more about Dr. Sherman, her coaching and workshops you can visit her website,

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APA Reference
Sherman, A. (2018). Dysfunction Interrupted-Setting Boundaries with Difficult Holiday Houseguests. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 8, 2020, from


Last updated: 18 Nov 2018
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