The holiday season looms ahead. Soon families will travel across the country to gather among loved ones and catch up around elaborate feasts and celebrations. While good intentions drive these annual traditions, holidays so often present stress and triggering dynamics for people in early recovery. Holiday gatherings tend to create situations that, whether intentionally or not, test boundaries. Perhaps it’s an aunt pressing about why you were away for two months recently (the answer: rehab, and it’s none of her business unless you want it to be). Or maybe another relative pressuring you to go to an event where you know there will be alcohol. Setting boundaries for end-of-year events feels overwhelming even to people who are not juggling the stress of early recovery.
Tradition wields a lot of power over all of us. But recovering addicts and alcoholics should rest assured: your recovery program comes before everything else. Setting boundaries during the holidays is not self-indulgent; it’s a necessary part of working your program.
Your Journey, Your Choice
Recovery looks different for everyone. Some people feel safe and supported sharing the holidays with extended family. Others not so much. As family gatherings tend to get personal with conversation, many individuals in recovery feel pressured to share details about their general wellbeing. While there may be some uncomfortable questions around time spent in detox or other levels of rehab care this year, frankly speaking, setting boundaries means that you dictate the terms of interacting with family during holidays. If you don’t want to talk about how you’re really doing with people outside of the fellowship, you don’t have to.
You do not owe your medical history details or general holiday face time to anyone. If seeing family will create undue stress, consider whether family celebrations should be traded this year for an AA or NA meeting. The fellowship keeps their doors open during the holidays specifically because this time of year creates a unique type of stress.
Setting Boundaries with Family
Learning how to set healthy boundaries applies to gatherings at any time of year. But the holidays bring a higher level of familial expectation, and put bluntly, permissiveness toward toxic behavior. Some families enjoy relatively little drama. Others have older members who make off-color remarks, drink to excess at celebrations, or generally ask intrusive questions. Whatever the situation, boundaries set clear rules to minimize harm from poor interpersonal behavior. So what are some examples of setting healthy boundaries?
1. Identify Hard Limits
Sometimes family gatherings cause anxiety because of how open-ended they are. Choosing specific parameters around when to leave presents a clear “end” for the event. Hard limits include: a specific amount of time, triggering events, or cues such as the end of dessert.
2. Talk to Your Sponsor or a Counselor
When setting boundaries with family, sponsors and mental health counselors act as great sounding boards for how to proceed. Most have stayed sober through many holiday seasons. Their advice may give useful perspective on how to handle the social dynamics of holidays while clean and sober.
3. RSVP “No” Entirely
Tricky family dynamics present risk to your emotional wellbeing. If that may affect your sobriety as well, you are well within your rights to just skip holiday celebrations this year altogether. Family may give you a hard time over your absence. A sponsor and AA/NA fellowship in meetings offer resources to work through any difficult interactions that result from saying no to holiday celebrations.
4. Bring a Support Confidante
Feeling alone in a crowded room sucks. Holiday gatherings may be less stressful if you stick together with a close family member or friend who understands your triggers and can help you through tough interactions. Or even just ask a family member if they could check in with you periodically as a safety net. Although setting boundaries ultimately rests on your shoulders, trusted confidantes help reduce anxiety while doing so.
5. Offer Alternatives
Holiday gatherings create stress through alcohol-friendly environments and overcrowding. You can still spend quality time with family in alternative, safer, and more relaxed settings. Consider whether family time might play out better over a casual lunch date or coffee.
Stay Honest with Your Program
Navigating family dynamics absolutely presents challenges. Holidays easily rank as the most difficult time of year for many people. But remember: the holiday season comes with a definitive end date, and challenges are never an excuse to relapse. All of us will emerge on the other side at some point. And your support network exists exactly for getting through difficult situations like setting boundaries during the stressful holiday season.
If you or a loved one is seeking help for a substance abuse issue, our counselors are available 24/7 by phone: 855-997-4702