Emotional HealthFamilyHealing 7 minutes to read

Maybe you’ve been there. You have a holiday dinner or gathering with extended family that seems full of potential joy and connection, but you leave discouraged because of an angry blow-up with “that relative.” Or maybe you have been looking forward to some extra days off work, only to look back on your break with regret because of poor choices, a relapse, or a neglected opportunity. Maybe you had lofty plans to really focus on the true meaning of Christmas and to find deep purpose through your faith, only to spend all your time on a screen or pursuing other forms of entertainment. The season comes and goes, and the healthy celebration you anticipated falls flat.

Ever been there? I know I have. My ideals to “make this Christmas really matter” often end up in the rubble of unhealthy patterns from my past that come back to steal away the joy. Dr. Ted Roberts has often referred to this season as a “limbic holiday,” as the potential for any one of us to escape reality and go into fight, flight, or freeze mode is an ever present temptation. The truth is, the Christmas season presents each one of us with tremendous opportunities: both opportunities for joy and celebration, but also opportunities to escape, medicate pain, or avoid the messiness of life. 

So which route will define our experience this year? For me, I think one of the primary answers to this question is defined in a single word: boundaries. Simply put, do we establish boundaries that keep us on a path toward health and recovery, or do we disregard them, thinking we can just wing it? Take some advice from a guy who thought he could just “wing it” for far too long: boundaries can be your best friend during this Christmas season.

You may be asking, What exactly is a boundary? I would define a boundary as a personal choice we make to intentionally place limits around our behavior for the good of ourselves and those we love. First, this choice is personal to us, meaning we need to make decisions that help us stay healthy, whether or not everyone else in our life understands why. Second, these choices are intentional in that we think ahead about how to be proactive in maintaining our health. Third, the limits we place are around our behavior, not our spouse’s or family’s behavior, because the only person we can control is ourselves! And finally, these choices enable us to truly celebrate the good things of this season in a way that is life-giving and without regret. Too often, boundaries feel like a bad thing, limiting our behavior. But when we define them this way, we can see how beneficial they truly are! 

So, how do we go about establishing some healthy boundaries this Christmas season? Here are four strategies for a healthy holiday. 

1. What You Have In Place Stays In Place.

If you are in recovery from unwanted sexual behavior, or from the trauma this caused in your life, you likely have already a list of well-defined guardrails that keep you from your unhealthy behaviors. I like the term “guardrails” when it comes to avoiding our addictive patterns. In real life if you crash through a guardrail, you’re putting you and your vehicle in real danger! The same is true of our guardrails around addiction or acting out in unhealthy ways. If we ignore them, we put ourselves and the people we love in great peril. For many of us, these guardrails have been carefully developed over months, or even years, based on our past patterns and cycle of acting out. They are rooted in wisdom, discipline, and community. So no matter what else changes in your life over the holiday season, these guardrails DO NOT CHANGE. 

We don’t take a holiday from health! Now would be a good time to pull out your Three Circles (Relapse Prevention Tool) and refresh your memory on the commitments you have already made. You may even want to print it and place it somewhere you are likely to see it—if you’re headed on a trip, throw it in your suitcase! These are wise guidelines you have put in place for good reason, and you need them more than ever during the Christmas season. Do not allow the freedoms that can come during this time, like less work or school, to cause you to let go of these healthy parameters in your life!

2. Make a Detailed List.

Take some time to think ahead to the next couple weeks and make a list of triggering situations, people, and emotions. Be as specific as you can! This list is likely a bit different than during the rest of your year, and you can see these triggers more clearly now as the holiday approaches. For example, someone might identify that at holiday parties, there is an open bar or free drinks and, in the past, they tended to overindulge on alcohol. Perhaps the rest of the year this isn’t really an issue for them so the topic has never made their guardrails list. At Christmas, however, they might need to add a limit of having no more than two drinks on any given day. This may not be a guardrail they need to avoid relapse, but remember: the goal of recovery isn’t simply sobriety. Our goal is health! So, this individual might choose to add this new boundary to guide them into health during the Christmas season.

As you think through and develop this list of triggers, the next part of this strategy is to construct appropriate boundaries to guide you during this season. These new boundaries for health may only be in effect until the New Year. Or, you might arrive in January and decide that some of these are healthy for you year round! Some additional examples of these boundaries could include, not engaging in political conversation with relatives, not staying up alone at night watching TV, or not isolating in a room by ourselves during a family gathering.

3. Recruit Another Set of Eyes.

As we develop these new Christmas boundaries, the third strategy to employ is to have a trusted friend go over them with us. The truth is, we all have blind spots! And if we can’t see any blind spots in our life, this is only further proof that we have them! If you are married, this is an area where your spouse can get involved in a healthy way. If you are single, or if your spouse isn’t currently willing to engage in your recovery process, you could approach a close friend or trusted member of your small group. As you go through your specific list of holiday triggers, ask them if they can see anything you are missing, or if any of your plans looks ineffective to them. 

This can be a vulnerable step to take, but it is absolutely crucial! If we make a detailed list and plan, but then keep this plan to ourselves, it is far too easy to justify making changes to the plan when it feels right to us. As I have said often, I can use the word “just” to justify just about anything! I’ll just have one more drink. I just need to be on my phone and isolate myself for now. I’m just defending myself, not really arguing. On and on the list can go! Trusting in our own instinct or ability to stay healthy in isolation is what got us into this mess. This same self-reliance cannot be the way out! So go over your new boundaries with someone else, ask for their input, and then commit to follow-up with them regularly to report on your progress.

4. Reflect Daily.

The fourth and final strategy for healthy holiday boundaries is to reflect daily on our progress and note where we are doing well or where we have come up short. This practice is very similar to an ancient Christian discipline known as the “Examen.” St. Ignatius of Loyola, who founded the Jesuit order, implemented a practice among all his followers that they should daily examine their hearts to see where they were feeling God’s presence—consolation; or where they felt his absence—desolation. Ignatius felt that this daily process could allow the Holy Spirit to bring joy and conviction, and then guide a person’s steps into change for the next day. He called men and women to be contemplatives in action!

I would encourage a similar pattern of looking at our list of boundaries daily, and making a short journal entry of how we are doing. This helps us to keep our commitments front and center in our thinking, and also helps us to make incremental, daily adjustments based on what we are seeing. Often, when our boundaries begin to slide, this process doesn’t happen all at once. We slowly step away from our commitments until we end up at a place wholly different than we intended. A practice of reflecting daily—examining our souls and actions—can keep us focused on health and God’s work in our lives.


I pray this Christmas season is one of great celebration and joy for you and all those you love. I don’t want a single one of us to look back with any regret because of choices made or opportunities missed. A new, thoughtful list of Christmas boundaries can be a gift to you and others this season, for within great discipline lies the secret power of great freedom. 

Merry Christmas!

Nick Stumbo

Nick is the Executive Director for Pure Desire. He has been in ministry leadership for 18 years. He was in pastoral ministry at East Hills Alliance Church in Kelso, Washington, for 14 years. Nick has a Bachelor in Pastoral Studies from Crown College, an MDiv from Bethel Seminary, and is a certified Pastoral Sex Addiction Professional (PSAP) through the International Institute for Trauma and Addiction Professionals (IITAP). He has authored two books, Setting Us Free and Safe: Creating a Culture of Grace in a Climate of Shame.

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