While therapists will admit that they aren’t as skillful and perfect as we think they are, they can be great people to turn to if you need guidance.
And with the holidays approaching, who doesn’t need a little support? Whether it’s setting boundaries with a family member, navigating eating disorder recovery or something else entirely, therapists often have great takes. Sometimes, they even tell us what we didn’t know we needed to hear.
Part of supporting ourselves is knowing what doesn’t work for us. For what therapists refuse to do this holiday season (and tips they have to help you refuse too), read on.
1. They don’t break personal boundaries.
The pressure to “just say yes” can be especially strong during the holiday season — and there’s still no shame in holding fast to your “no.”
“My focus this year during the holiday season has been to refuse to violate my own boundaries for the comfort of someone else,” said Hayli Evans, a licensed marriage and family therapist.
That might look like avoiding political conversations that don’t align with her worldview or values, she continued, as well as saying “no” to events beyond her capacity and asking family not to kiss her infant daughter.
“These boundaries not only serve to keep my family safe, but also help to prevent resentment in relationships that are important to me,” Evans added. “We don’t do our loved ones any favors by violating our own boundaries to prevent them from feeling uncomfortable feelings.”
You can even show empathy within your boundary, according to Maggie C. Vaughan, a therapist and the head of youth transformation at Tapouts. She gave the example of a parent talking to their child, saying, “I know it’s boring to get to bed on time, but I care about you and want you to be able to enjoy tomorrow.”
The empathy piece can be especially helpful with kids. “Kids internalize their parents’ support and empathy, and thereby develop self-compassion and confidence,” Vaughan explained. “They’re less likely to judge themselves, and therefore others, and are instead focused on empathizing and making adaptive change.”
How to do it: Evans suggested reflecting on your boundaries, repeating them to yourself and making a resolution to stick to them.
A mantra can help, too. A few she mentioned are “Every adult is responsible for managing their own emotions and behavior,” “It is not my responsibility to control their response to my boundaries,” and “I am worthy of setting boundaries and being treated with respect.”
2. They won’t be the family’s unofficial therapist.
It’s important to keep your work life separate from your personal life — and doing that doesn’t mean you don’t care about people or your job.
“While I’m passionate about supporting mental health professionally, I’ve learned that maintaining a line between work and family life is crucial,” said Holly Wood, a therapist and sexologist.
This boundary helps her have meaningful time with loved ones, which she appreciates dearly. “During festive times, I want to kick back and soak up quality moments with my loved ones without diving into therapy mode,” Wood said.
This is also helpful for family dynamics, as it encourages getting perspective from third parties. “By avoiding the therapist role within my family, I help prevent what we call ‘triangulation’ — when there’s a conflict between two family members, and rather than facing it head-on, they pull in a third person to deal with it,” she said.
How to do it: Share what you are and aren’t comfortable with from the start. “Personally, clear communication has been my strongest ally,” Wood said. “Expressing my boundaries firmly yet respectfully to my family early on has made a significant difference.”
“DEAR MAN” is a dialectical behavior therapy skill that can help with effective communication. It stands for: describe, express, assert, reinforce, mindfulness, appear confident, and negotiate.
Wood also reminds herself that not everyone will immediately understand or accept her boundaries, which helps her manage her expectations.
3. They don’t suppress difficult feelings.
Amid family you haven’t seen in a while and cheery music, you may sense a pressure to feel and appear happy during the holidays — and it’s OK if you don’t feel or appear that way.
“Holidays are so hard in grief,” said Nola Metz Simpson, a therapist and the founder and owner of the Center for Loss, Grief, Hope & Healing. “We connect the memories of our loved ones to important times, like holidays, and it’s hard to balance the ‘merry and bright’ with the deep feelings of sadness, sometimes.”
She encourages both herself and others to feel their feelings (yes, even the tough ones). “I share the bittersweetness with others, hoping to validate it for them in some way, too,” she said.
Chelsea Bodie, a psychologist, felt similarly. “One thing I avoid over the holidays as a therapist is neglecting my emotional feelings and expectations,” she said. “The holidays often come with financial stress, difficult family dynamics or even personal expectations.”
How to do it: One thing that can help is taking small, intentional steps to honor loved ones who have passed. Simpson shared the examples of lighting candles in their honor, exchanging memories or putting their picture on the table.
“There are many small yet important [ways] to integrate our loved ones into the season that is supportive of healing, and normalizes loss, as well,” Simpson said.
On a more individual level, normalize having emotions with self-compassion. “Give yourself permission to feel your feelings,” Bodie said. “It is OK to have a mixture of emotions come up over the holidays. That doesn’t make you ungrateful or unappreciative.”
4. They don’t put their mental health on the back burner.
For a lot of us, the holidays are busy, busy, busy. We’re making plans with old friends, engaging in traditions with family, baking cookies, buying gifts — the list goes on. It’s important to pay attention to your needs throughout.
“That means taking a break and stepping back from work; allowing myself to rest, eat and give myself a break; and to not allow others, for a variety of reasons, [to] put my mental health at anything but ease,” said Hallie Kritsas, a licensed mental health counselor with Thriveworks in Jacksonville, Florida, who specializes in relationships, stress, self-esteem and coping skills. “If I’m not prioritizing my own mental health, I can’t be the best person for my loved ones or my clients.”
How to do it: Kritsas encourages taking breathers and reminding yourself of the value of self-care, as hard as it all might be.
“I do know that spending time by myself to recoup, and advising people to do the same, seems to be extremely beneficial,” she said. “Knowing that making plans and spending time with friends and family can be important, but to also know that it is OK to say ‘no’ and to prioritize oneself can help make the holiday season even more enjoyable.”
5. They won’t spend too much time working.
You may feel pressure to work over the holidays for a variety of reasons, from a relentless boss to bills that need paying to just being proud of what you do. That’s OK, and not overworking is often something to strive for.
“I think there are a lot of pressures in our culture to constantly work without the time given for necessary rest,” said Christina Canuto, a licensed marriage and family therapist associate with Choosing Therapy. “During the last couple of months of the year, work projects can ramp up and pressures to produce can multiply.”
To the extent that you can, consider saying “no” to work. “It’s important to me to take time during the holidays to reconnect with myself and my loved ones outside of my identity to work,” Canuto said.
How to do it: The two main tips here are to get proactive and be mindful.
“What is helpful for me is planning ahead of time to take time off for the holidays, and knowing that part of that time will be spent with myself, part with my partner and part with family and friends,” Canuto said.
She encouraged letting your boss, clients or other people at work know this too, so they can be prepared and get you any materials you need to do your job before then (or be willing to wait until after the holidays to see it completed).
Canuto extends that proactivity to her finances as well. “I also budget accordingly and spend a month or so minimizing expenses so that I know I can financially afford to have time off,” she said.
6. They don’t expect perfection.
Maybe you’re baking a new dessert and it doesn’t look as pretty as the one in the picture. Maybe your family’s holiday photo didn’t turn out exactly the way you wanted. That can be disappointing! Social media, especially, leads many of us to believe that everyone’s holiday but ours was perfect.
Remind yourself that things aren’t always what they seem and that perfection isn’t everything. “I refuse to fall for the expectation-versus-reality trap,” said Kelly Weekers, a psychologist and bestselling author in Europe. “Expecting too much from myself or others during this time of year mostly creates disappointments and is a breeding ground for stress.”
She’s found that being realistic and appreciative helps her enjoy the holiday season so much more.
Kimberly Vered Shashoua, a licensed clinical social worker, feels similarly. “I tell myself that ‘good enough’ is good enough,” she said. “If my holiday decorations or planned celebrations feel ‘good enough,’ I don’t need to push myself to have things neater, shinier or busier.”
How to do it: Weekers suggested lowering expectations, doing what feels authentically good to you and focusing on the bigger picture of what the holiday spirit is all about.
“[Know] that it can be as great — maybe even more so — to celebrate the holidays without the stress of buying expensive gifts, styled outfits and Christmas commercial-worthy table decorations,” she added.
7. They don’t overbook themselves.
During the holidays, you may feel like you have to do all of the things, despite feeling exhausted after a long year. “It’s easy to feel pressured, overwhelmed and [to] overcommit ourselves at a time of year when our body and soul need space, quiet and slowing-down,” said the Rev. Connie L. Habash, a licensed marriage and family therapist.
Amanda Stretcher, a counselor and supervisor with Choosing Therapy, has been there, too. She’s found the value in saying “no” sometimes.
“By not overcommitting, we create space to fully engage in the events we do attend,” she explained. “Being present allows us to savor meaningful moments without constantly worrying about what else we might be thinking.”
How to do it: Habash said she finds it helpful to take a moment (or even a few days) before making any decisions.
“The space and time to sit with what to commit to allows you to check in with your heart, soul and your realistic calendar,” she said. “Take that pause to discern if you are truly a ‘yes,’ or if the commitment feels more like unnecessary pressure (a ‘should’ or ‘have to’) and stress.”
Stretcher recommended setting realistic expectations, scheduling time for personal well-being, being careful with social media use and communicating boundaries. She wants people to know “that it’s OK to prioritize their mental health.”
Stretcher also reframed decision-making into a positive. “Embrace the power of choice and remember that a mindful approach to commitments fosters a deeper connection with the true spirit of the holidays,” she said. “Prioritize activities that bring you joy and align with your values.”
8. They don’t turn down opportunities to spend meaningful time with loved ones.
At the same time, you may prefer to push yourself during the holiday season, and that can be beneficial for some folks, too.
“I refuse to live with regret that I didn’t spend time with someone or do something special because I was tired,” said Leah Young, the clinical manager at Eating Recovery Center and Pathlight Mood & Anxiety Center. “For example, if this is the one time a year that I get to see my sister, I will drive wherever, whenever, to see her. If I have to work the next morning but we have an opportunity to stay up late laughing and talking, I refuse to let that go.”
How to do it: Young said she makes this work by incorporating extra self-care later and being thoughtful about what she says “yes” to. It can help to be mindful of what your particular values and priorities are (without judgment).
The TL;DR? Ultimately, all of this comes down to setting boundaries, both with yourself and with others.
“For those struggling with setting boundaries within their families, starting with smaller boundaries in less intense situations can be a good beginning,” Wood suggested.
Additionally, she encouraged seeking support from a professional or loved one if needed.
While taking these steps can be difficult, they may very well be worth it, too. “Remember, setting boundaries is an ongoing process that requires practice and patience, ultimately contributing to a healthier and happier family dynamic during the holidays,” she said.
If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, call or text 988 or chat 988lifeline.org for support.