stressful holiday traditions

Let Go of Stressful Holiday Traditions

The holidays are a time for yummy treats, joyful reunions, festive decorations, and…stress? Yep, even the most festive among us can find ourselves tangled in a web of expectations, obligations, and traditions that leave us feeling more drained than jolly. This year, let’s let go of stressful holiday traditions by setting boundaries that protect our time, finances, and health, and allow us to celebrate (or not) on our own terms.

We do many things during the holidays because they’re traditions, failing to stop and consider whether they’re still meaningful, practical, or enjoyable. Our circumstances change and we change. So, it makes sense that some of our traditions may need to change, too.

Meaningful Tradition or Obligation?

First, we need to identify the things that drain us. What traditions leave you feeling depleted, resentful, or simply “meh”? Is it the marathon baking session that turns your kitchen into a disaster? The awkward dinner with its predictable family drama? The pressure to buy everyone a gift, leaving you financially strapped and emotionally spent?

Remember, there’s no “must-do” list for the holidays. Your traditions don’t have to be anyone else’s. Ask yourself:

  • Does this tradition bring me genuine joy, or am I just doing it out of obligation?
  • Does it align with my values and priorities?
  • Am I sacrificing my well-being or financial security to uphold it?

Boundaries Create Happier Holidays

Boundaries protect your time and energy, allowing you to prioritize the things that truly matter. Think of it like this: the less time you spend on obligations and draining traditions, the more space you have for the experiences that fill your heart with genuine joy.

Here are some tips for better holiday boundaries:

  • Identify the time-suckers: Look at your schedule. What commitments are squeezing the life out of your holidays? Take note of the activities that leave you feeling depleted, not energized.
  • Delegate and negotiate: Can you enlist help with tasks like cooking or cleaning? Can you delegate gift-giving to a family gift exchange? Can you negotiate a shorter, more manageable visit with relatives who tend to drain your energy? 
  • Schedule buffer zones: Block out time in your calendar for self-care and activities that nourish your soul. Whether it’s a solo walk or a quiet evening with your partner.
  • Learn to say no (and mean it): You don’t need to justify every “no.” A simple “I appreciate the invitation, but I’m prioritizing some quiet time this year” is perfectly sufficient. 

Remember, you’re not responsible for managing other people’s expectations or guilt.

Communicate your Holiday Boundaries

Once you’ve identified the expectations and obligations that are draining you, it’s time to communicate your needs and preferences to others. But how do you navigate these conversations without setting off family feuds or guilt-tripping relatives?

  • Start with empathy and self-compassion. Acknowledge that these traditions may hold sentimental value for others, but prioritize your own needs.
  • Focus on the “why,” not the “no.” Instead of simply saying “no” to baking cookies, explain that you’re prioritizing spending quality time with loved ones.
  • Offer alternatives. Explain that you’re prioritizing your well-being and offer alternative ways to connect. Perhaps, suggest simpler, less stressful ways to celebrate, if that would be supportive.
  • Set clear expectations: Don’t be afraid to communicate your needs upfront. If you prefer smaller gatherings, let your family know. If you’d rather spend Christmas Eve at home, have that conversation. Setting clear expectations early on helps avoid misunderstandings and resentment later.
  • Remember, you have a right to do what’s best for you, and you don’t need to apologize for prioritizing your well-being.

Make the Holidays Meaningful

Letting go of old traditions can feel like a loss, but remember, it’s also an opportunity to create new ones.

  • Reconnect with your values: What truly matters to you during the holidays? Is it spending quality time with loved ones? Giving back to your community? Experiencing new things? Identify your core values and use them as a guiding light when making decisions about your holiday traditions.
  • Embrace simpler pleasures: Remember, the holidays don’t have to be expensive or fancy. Focus on creating meaningful moments, like playing board games with loved ones, looking at Christmas lights, or simply enjoying a cozy fire with a good book.
  • Explore new traditions: Be creative! You don’t have to spend the holidays like everyone else. Start a new tradition of volunteering at a shelter, traveling, going to the movies, or hosting a potluck dinner with your chosen family. 

Final Thoughts

The holidays should be marked in ways that are meaningful to you. This year, set boundaries, let go of what drains you, and embrace new traditions that work for you.

©2023 Dr. Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved. Photos courtesy of

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Sharon Martin, DSW, LCSW is a psychotherapist and author specializing in codependency recovery. For the past 25 years, she’s been helping people-pleasers, perfectionists, and adult children overcome self-doubt and shame, embrace their imperfections, and set boundaries. Dr. Martin writes the popular blog Conquering Codependency for Psychology Today and is the author of The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism and The Better Boundaries Workbook.

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