Q: The entire holiday season has made me feel like I’m just swimming against the current. It’s been really hard setting boundaries with my family, trying to keep my kids and husband and me safe and healthy. Not just family, but some friends, too, who suggested we get together to celebrate, but some take more risks than I’m comfortable with. I’m exhausted and feeling low. Probably just “COVID fatigue.” But I wish it wasn’t such hard work all the time, having conversations and dealing with difficult behavior about getting together with family or friends. I’ve realized I struggle with maintaining boundaries, because I don’t want to hurt or upset anyone. Any advice?

A: Setting and maintaining boundaries can be challenging. With family and close friends, we tend to be more sensitive to their feelings, committed to protecting our relationships. However, it’s important to care for your own needs before taking care of someone else’s feelings. That doesn’t mean intentionally hurting someone, although it does mean practicing good self-care, which is setting healthy boundaries. That said, be mindful of what and how you say something, as the delivery can obscure your intended message.

Covid has certainly overshadowed the holidays, increasing the likelihood of having difficult conversations. Many families shaped new plans, limiting gatherings or canceling traditional holiday customs. I empathize with your fatigue, as well as the hard work of weighing the risks. If setting boundaries is not well-established, it will take practice. At the heart of this is healthy self-esteem, believing that you matter and that you’re worthy of good self-care. Without that, being assertive with what works best for you and your family will be an ongoing “work in progress.” First, it’s helpful to validate the other person’s perspective, whether or not you agree with it. To your question, an example: “I appreciate you’d like to stay with our annual holiday traditions and visit us. With the necessary precautions of COVID, we need to make new plans. Although that’s quite an adjustment, I know we want to acknowledge what’s most comfortable for each of us.” Beware: that won’t necessarily translate to a tacit agreement, or a positive response. Your family member or friend, whoever is trying to influence your plan, may continue to push back. If so, it’s important to address it immediately, referring to your previous statement. Example: “I’m not feeling heard or understood. I’m sure we can think of a way to make this work for everyone.”

Should you feel unsettled with this, check in with yourself. Be curious about what makes it so hard to advocate for your needs. Self-esteem is the ability to hold yourself in warm, positive regard, in spite of your shortcomings and imperfections. This is at the center of setting good boundaries, having a strong internal sense that you are enough, that you matter, for then you will be less likely to compromise your needs to avoid hurting someone else’s feelings. At the root of “difficult behavior” can often be sadness, disappointment, feeling misunderstood. Thus, if you speak directly to that, it might melt away the relational tension. Referring to the previous example: “I appreciate you’d like to stay with our annual holiday traditions and visit us. With the necessary precautions of COVID, we need to make new plans. I want you to know I hear and understand how disappointed and sad you must be. I feel that way too.” There are solutions that can support each person, keeping boundaries clear with balance, validating everyone’s needs are important. Should someone’s difficult behavior, or boundary violations, be an ongoing problem, look at the frequency, intensity, and your own reactions to the behavior before considering how firmly you need to draw the line. Healthy boundaries are an important part of mutually respectful relationships.

Finally, a new year is always full of possibility, compelling us to make changes. Reflecting on what we did “badly” in 2020, our shortcomings, we can now focus on what we might like to do differently. Yet, expecting to change all we didn’t like about this year can be overwhelming. As the holiday stretch winds down, I’m feeling a mixture of nostalgia and relief. It was certainly a different holiday in my family, as was the case for so many of us. Those of us separated from our children, siblings, or parents may have replaced the usual family traditions with various adaptations to ensure safety. Zoom gatherings are more common, providing a way to reach out to relatives and friends who are feeling the absence of their loved ones and their usual festive traditions. Given the shift in focus, I’m asking my family to consider the many things for which we can be grateful.

We certainly can do better in 2021. Let us commit to enduring kindness.

May this year bring abundant blessings and joy, goodwill, close community, good health and safety, and warm connection.

Do not take lightly small good deeds,
Believing they can hardly help.
For drops of water, one by one,
In time can fill a giant pot.

— Patral Rinpoche