How to Maintain Healthy Personal Space During the Holidays

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Personal space means something different to everyone. The Oxford dictionary defines “personal space” as “the physical space immediately surrounding someone, into which any encroachment feels threatening to or uncomfortable to them.” Is it an arms length away? Three feet away? How about in the next room? The answer is that it depends. Neuroscientists say that the brain computes a “buffer zone” around the body that has the ability to change in size depending on the situation and that this buffer zone is computed in a way that is unconscious -- meaning we can’t help it. It’s just part of our social interactions as humans. 

During the holiday season, getting the appropriate personal space can be more challenging. Between festive holiday parties with large crowds, family staying in your home for an extended period of time, additional stress around hosting dinners and wrapping presents, and the list goes on and on.  

Bottom line: Everyone has their own individual need for personal space and the holidays are one of the most challenging times of the year to maintain boundaries. If you’re someone who knows you need to establish boundaries with your family during the holidays -- for your sanity -- this article includes suggestions to help you succeed.  


Identify Your Personal Boundary Needs 

Many people develop anxiety heading into the holiday season. Maybe your holiday plans include a visit to stay with family in close quarters or an invite to your significant other’s company holiday party. It’s possible that you don’t even know why the holidays stress you out. It’s very likely that you anticipate these social situations will infringe on your personal space but you’re not even aware of it. Here are a few ways to recognize your need for personal boundaries. 

  • You go out of your way to please others, even if it’s at your own expense. 
  • You find decision-making difficult and usually just go with what other people want. 
  • You feel guilty saying “No” and don’t want to let people down. 
  • You modify your behavior to fit those around you. You’re not yourself. 
  • You keep your feelings bottled up and let your frustration fester. 
Once you’ve identified your need for personal space, the next step is to establish what kinds of boundaries will make sense for you.


Create Reasonable Boundaries

Once you have identified the need for personal space, identify a few tactics that you can put in your toolkit to help survive the holidays. Here is a list of tactics -- you may not need to employ all of them but it is good to have several in your arsenal for various social situations this Christmas.

  • Use your body language. Hold out your hand for a fist pump or elbow tap before someone can come in for an awkward hug or uncomfortable kiss. 
  • Be kind but firm. It’s okay to say “No, thanks” when asked to do something you don’t feel comfortable doing. 
  • Consider sending an ecard rather than going for a visit if you feel overwhelmed. It’s a thoughtful gesture that will let people know you care. 
  • Communicate reasonable expectations. For example: Agree with your spouse on a specific time that you will leave the holiday party. That way you know exactly how long you will be there and can enjoy the time you’re there. 
  • Be open and honest with friends and family. It’s okay to tell your family that you need a few hours to yourself to recharge your batteries. You’ll be better off in the long run than if you struggle through a week-long family visit and explode on the last day. 
  • Take care of your body. Stress and anxiety often occur when someone is violating your personal boundaries. Go for a run, do a yoga class, take a hike -- anything that will get your blood flowing will help bring down your stress and make other holiday situations more manageable. 

Verbalize Boundaries

Once you have identified your personal boundary needs and outlined ways to address these needs, you will need to communicate these boundaries to others. You can do this in a way that is kind to both yourself and those around you. Here are some simple tips: 

  • Be assertive but not nasty. You have a right to make your needs known. And, you can be kind when you share these needs. 
  • Learn to say “no” without feeling guilty. Everyone’s feelings matter, including yours. 
  • Explain how you feel when your personal space is infringed upon. Speak from the heart. Your loved ones don’t want to cause you any unnecessary pain or hardship. 

Practice Breathing Exercises

When you are in situations where you cannot get the personal space that you need, there are other ways to successfully make it through. Breathing exercises and meditation may be a good option for you. These techniques are also beneficial to decrease general stress and anxiety overall, so if you have downtime during the holidays explore these best practices. First, two techniques for breathing exercises: 

  • Equal breathing — you will inhale for the same number of breaths that you exhale 

    • Close your eyes and breathe normal
    • Count slowly 1-2-3-4 as you inhale through your nose
    • Exhale for the same 1-2-3-4 count
    • Repeat several times as you are especially mindful of your breathing
  • Focus breathing — slow and focused deep breathing

    • Take a slow, deep breath in through your nose (notice your belly expand)
    • Select a word to focus on as you exhale (“calm”, “relax”, and “safe” work)
    • Repeat for several minutes, always focused on the exhale
    • Imagine the exhale is like a wave carrying negative thoughts out to sea 
Guided meditation can be done in person (many yoga centers offer medication) or through an online offering. There are also many apps that provide calming sounds to soothe the brain. You can even combine the breathing exercises above with calming sounds of the ocean or rainforest to achieve zen right from your own home.   

 

Make Small Changes

If you’ve experienced very little personal space for a long time, it may be overwhelming to suddenly change your behavior. Start with small changes like short breaks and learning to tell people “no.” You can also find ways to carve out time for yourself this holiday season while not explicitly telling people you need personal space. Here are some holiday scenarios: 

  • Staying with relatives at the holidays? Bring a book and read in the morning before you join the family for breakfast. If everyone thinks you’re sleeping, they won’t bother you. 
  • Kids driving you nuts? Offer to run to the store to pick up more wrapping paper and candy canes.  
  • Significant other getting on your nerves? Book them a spa appointment so they can decompress (but really, you’ll get an hour or so to yourself!)

Remember, you can’t blame others for invading your personal space if they don’t know that it’s something that bothers you. 


Address Feelings of Guilt

It is very common for people to put a lot of pressure on themselves in ways that limit them from addressing their personal boundary needs. Many people have difficulty denying requests from friends and family and/or a strong desire to take care of everyone else. It’s extremely difficult to successfully gain healthy personal space if you don’t address any underlying guilt. 

Here are a few ways to address the guilt you may feel about setting personal boundaries: 

  • Create a mantra like “It’s okay to set boundaries” or “My feelings are important too” that you can repeat to yourself when you start to feel guilty.
  • Remember your reasons for establishing personal boundaries. You can be your best self and that’s ultimately good for everyone around you. 
  • Lighten your load and simplify everyday tasks. This is especially good advice at the holidays. For example: use digital invitations to simplify the effort of coordinating get-togethers.
  • Go easy on yourself. It’s hard to set personal boundaries and you may not be great at it at first. Practice makes perfect! 

If your feelings of guilt are severe and persistent, it may be prudent to seek the advice of a mental health counselor. The ability to speak with someone outside your circle of friends and family can often provide perspective that we don’t get from our inner circles. 

Address Any Need for Constant Control

Some people need to feel like they are always in control, which can limit your ability to leave things be and take time to yourself. For someone who requires personal space, the added issue of control makes relaxation a more difficult endeavor. 

This holiday season, take a step back and assess what you have coming up. What social plans are on the calendar? What family obligations do you need to juggle? What are the things that you are most concerned about? Then, make a list of the things that are in your control. Explore ways you can get help from others and delegate tasks with specific direction to people you trust.  

You cannot control other people’s actions. However, when it comes to personal space, you can employ the tactics discussed above and you can control how you react. How you communicate your needs and manage your reactions will determine how you maintain healthy personal space this holiday season. 

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