Love & Wisdom

How to Survive and Thrive During the Holidays

Firm boundaries aren’t just for cats

By Sarah Stackhouse December 21, 2023


This article originally appeared in the March/April 2024 issue of Seattle magazine.

My cat kept jumping onto the bed as I made it. He’d dive into the folds, scratching my comforter. I set him on the floor and grabbed a nearby laundry basket, tipped it upside down, and trapped him underneath. He found this amusing. I finished the bed, then went on to make a few more. I forgot about him. 

I thought about Christmas as I was tidying up, going over the menu I’m planning. It’s the same every year. It’s not difficult. But the holidays are a lot. There’s an advent calendar that needs to be filled (I know. It’s too late to abandon this tradition.) There are parties, ornament exchanges, gifts, cards, and busy stores. The schools and extracurriculars are on the hunt for volunteers. Work is ramping up. It’s the end of the year, and we’re all cramming. 

Later, I found my cat laying on his side and blinking slowly under the white plastic cage. There was a hair tie nearby. Clearly, he’d discovered a new game to play through the holes in the basket. He was happy and sleepy now. And I was happy I got some chores done. He had to get creative after a new framework came down around him. When I let him out we were both calm.

Now, I’m not advocating for clobbering your family members with laundry baskets, but erecting a few boundaries for this time of year will help you survive with your sanity intact.

Firm boundaries are a way of prioritizing your needs. And those around you will have to get creative with whatever it is you’re able to provide. They’ll appreciate that you arrive in a good mood. You’ll feel happier, and it won’t be because you spiked the eggnog again this year. You’ll become a better helper. You won’t be stretched too thin. 


Get enough sleepBeing well rested means energy, a better perspective, and full functionality. When I don’t get enough sleep I tend to zoom in too much and everything feels like a gigantic disaster. By midday I’m ready to end my marriage, leave the kids, and run with the rats in underground tunnels like the flea-ridden rodent I am at my core.

Eat enough healthy foodSure, indulge in holiday treats but don’t forget to eat your fruits and veggies, too. In other words, eat the kringle but with a carrot chaser. 

Take breaks. Find alone time to read, scroll, walk, watch Seinfeld reruns, stare into space, look at the sky, annoy your house animal, or eat another kringle. My husband fools absolutely no one when he “takes the trash out,” followed by the familiar sounds of professional football coming from the garage. Whenever he returns from doing a chore, we ask him, “What’s the score?”

Set time limitsDon’t respond instantly to annoying texts, emails, or phone calls. Wait at least two hours. Accessibility is on your terms. If it’s work related, definitely ignore it. 

If a particular event is more difficult for you, give folks a heads up about how long you intend to stay. “I’m watching Pee-wee Herman’s Christmas Special on a loop today, but I can stop by for an hour.” No further explanation needed. 

Don’t respond only to argue or defend yourself. Not everything needs a reply. If drunk uncle Earl complains your house is too dark, acknowledge the comment, “Yeah, it’s the ambience,” and scoot past him to help Aunt Mildred set the table. No need to build a case defending your choices. 

You’re not responsible for solutions. Sharing feelings or listening doesn’t always require fixing. Feelings aren’t right or wrong. They’re passing sensations. They’re weird and confusing for everyone. It’s often disappointment we’re feeling, stemming from unmet expectations. Empathize, “I get that you’re upset I gave everyone a hamper for Christmas.” Lighten the mood with a joke: “I use them to keep people in line.” Sometimes the only solution is acceptance and a good laugh. 

Embrace the imperfections. The end of the year hustle isn’t about being flawless. It’s about embracing the mess. Do a cheap surface level clean. Hang the stockings from a doorknob. Let the napkins and plates clash. Skip certain events. 

People might not get why you’re suddenly setting boundaries and hanging socks from doorknobs, and that’s OK. It’s your way of ensuring the season doesn’t result in a meltdown or a blackout. Your imperfections, just like theirs, are what make this whole thing beautifully human. That, and spiked eggnog. Good luck out there.  

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