If there was ever a season that pushed for boundary violations, returns to toxic relationship dynamics, and heaps of guilt thrown at you when you deviate from unhealthy patterns, it’s now. This span of time, generally from Halloween until New Year’s Day, is RIPE for this stuff. We spend months – years even – healing and growing, trying to untangle ourselves from old patterns and ways of being that no longer serve us, and then bam: the holidays hit and we get sucked right back into that vortex.

Why does this happen? There are the lots of factors at play. Family members that we don’t see on a regular basis are suddenly in town, or we are “back home” when we normally do not live locally to them. This kicks up lots of dynamics we aren’t used to managing regularly, as well as forces us into contact with people we may otherwise usually avoid. There is also tremendous pressure to attend specific events. Saying no to Christmas dinner is a lot different than saying no to a random barbeque on a summer weekend. As if that’s not enough, are frequently forced to choose one person over another. It’s not unusual to have to decide between two (or more!) sides of the family for Thanksgiving, but how often do you have competing invitations at any other time? Add in the increased alcohol consumption during this season, and you’ve got yourself a boundary-pushing dumpster fire to put out.

Whatever the reason this happens, the big question often is “how do I make it through all of this without undoing all of the progress I’ve made?” First of all, you will not undo all of your progress, no matter how you choose to navigate this time. Might you not feel great about some of the decisions you make? Yes. Might you suffer emotionally as a result of violated boundaries? Absolutely. Might you have to put in extra effort to renegotiate these boundaries afterwards? Of course. But your growth cannot be taken from you. It simply cannot be undone.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, here is my number one guiding principle for surviving the holidays with your boundaries intact, your emotional wellbeing respected, and with the ability to stand tall for your decisions regardless of how others may react to them: create and honor your bullseye of wellbeing.

Your bullseye of wellbeing is a literal bullseye with multiple rings. Each ring, starting with the circle in the middle, represents diminishing levels of connection you have for the wellbeing of the people in the ring. At my center is the list of people whose wellbeing I am the most connected to. For me, it’s me, my kids, and my husband in this circle. No one trumps this group in terms of whose physical, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing is the most important to me. Each ring beyond that holds people whose wellbeing is very important to me, but just not quite as important as the ring before it.

The bullseye is a very simple graphical representation, but how you fill it in is anything but simple. In order for this to be useful, you need to be brutally honest about which level you place people on. Just because someone or something tells you that your parents shouldbe on the second level, doesn’t mean you put them there. If their wellbeing isn’t actually as important to you as your cousin’s wellbeing, then they don’t go on a more inner circle than your cousin. The placement needs to be completely authentic and in alignment with your true feelings. Your bullseye will likely not be anything you share with many people, if you catch my drift.

It may take some time to get to your final bullseye – and yes, I’m saying you should actually take out a piece of paper and make an actual bullseye. Remember, you’re not putting every single person in your life on this. It’s just the people who you interact with regularly and then those you traditionally interact with during holidays, birthdays, etc. But once you have your bullseye, you can take a deep breath and know you’re prepared to move through this season in a way that is in alignment with your true self and your needs.

So how do I use this bullseye? It’s actually pretty simple (it’s the creating it part that’s complicated). Whenever there is a decision to be made – are we going to Aunt Betty’s for lunch on Thanksgiving this year or are we going out of town to be with my in-laws? – you use your bullseye to walk you through the decision-making process. Starting with your center ring, you ask which choice is in their best interest. Sometimes that will be the end of the process, as one option is clearly not in alignment with their wellbeing, so the decision is quickly made. Many other times you may find that both options are okay for that center ring. If that’s the case, you move onto your next ring and ask the same question. Which choice is in theirbest interest? You continue this process until one choice becomes the clear answer.

Other times, you aren’t making a choice between options, but instead are deciding whether to say yes or no to a particular event. Are we going to Uncle Jack’s for New Year’s Eve? The process is actually the same here because in reality you are choosing between two options. This is the key thing to remember in general: when we say yes to something we automatically are saying no to something else, and when we say no to something we automatically are saying yes to something else. So the decision of whether or not to go to Uncle Jack’s is actually the choice between going to Uncle Jack’s and [fill in the blank with whatever you’d do if you didn’t go]. Which of those options is healthiest for your center ring?

Of course you can use this bullseye method at any time of year, not just during the holidays. When I go through this process with clients, or use it in my own life, I always throw in the caveat that just because we find the “right” answer through our bullseye, we won’t always follow through on that answer. But we will always have clarity on what we’re doing and we will make decisions knowing full well whether or not they are in the best interests of those that are most important to us. And if we do choose to follow through on what we find through this method, we can do it confidently, knowing that while it may bring us some harsh words, looks, or responses from others who are not used to us going against tradition in the name of our wellbeing, we are acting from a place of self-respect and authenticity. And that is something I can always stand tall for.




Carolyn Wagner is a psychotherapist specializing in maternal mental health and the founder of The Calm Mama Method. She helps moms who struggle with anger find calm by learning to tune into the messages their anger is sending and transform it into healing. Carolyn is passionate about serving the world by supporting moms. She lives outside of Chicago with her husband, three young children, and Boogie, their beloved black lab who does her best to stay calm amidst the chaos.