How to Set Boundaries Around COVID Safety this Holiday Season

Do you need to turn down an invitation for Thanksgiving this year?

California is “sounding the alarm” on the spread of COVID, and Dr. Sara Cody (Santa Clara County Public Health Officer) has described eating around a table with people outside of our own household a “very high risk activity.”

If you know you want to roll back plans this year based on this guidance, you might be worried about turning down an invitation for a holiday gathering. If you don’t know what to say to your in-laws, neighbor, sister, mother, uncle… whoever it is that you know an invitation is coming from (or if you’ve already accepted an invitation and want to change your mind), this is for you.

Before we talk about how to approach this conversation, let’s chat about how the stakes got so high.

It can be really mystifying that we’re all looking at the same data yet making vastly different decisions. There are some folks who don’t believe taking precautions is necessary.

If this is the case and you want to assert a boundary, it isn’t worth arguing. You aren’t likely to change anyone’s mind in this circumstance.

There is something else happening though- many more people believe they ARE taking necessary precautions but have made different risk assessments from one another. The information coming from all levels of leadership is not consistent, and humans as individuals are not particularly good at making risk assessments of this nature.

Many people are engaging in different levels of precaution and believe they are being safe. It is important to assert your own boundary with kindness and confidence. If your boundary or precaution is more stringent than someone else’s, that’s okay.

You don’t have to explain it or justify it. If you’re not used to asserting a boundary with someone, you probably know that guilt can feel heavy. This might be hard, but it also might be worth it.

Here are some tips for planning and having what might be a challenging conversation:


1. Know your own boundary.

Do you know that you don’t want to eat dinner with others around a table? Are you comfortable with a 20 minute outdoor, masked and distant conversation? Or is a holiday get-together by video the best option for you? Knowing this before the conversation will allow you to focus on the purpose of the conversation without getting off track into an unwinnable-for-anyone argument.


2. Get on the same page with your household.

Thoughts about risk-taking in this situation can differ among members of your household. If you’re a couple, this may mean going with the boundary of the least comfortable member and then agreeing to assert that boundary together. If your spouse is uncomfortable with dinner with your parents, communicate that you have decided as a family rather than blaming it on just one person.


3. Communicate your boundary without judgment on their choices.

The goal here is to assert your own boundary, and this is something you can be 100% successful with. [If you want to try to encourage your loved ones to make different choices, this is a very different conversation – have it separately] “I am (we are) not comfortable with getting together with folks we don’t live with right now.”


4. Know you do not have to justify your boundary.

If someone asks you why, tries to convince you you’re wrong, or seems frustrated, it’s enough to say, “I am just not comfortable with it.” There isn’t a need to argue about the validity of your boundary OR the basis for their different decision making. You may need to repeat this serval times!


5. Express gratitude in a manner that is true for you.

“We always love our family holidays, and are looking forward to when we feel comfortable seeing everyone together again. We really can’t wait!” If not that’s not true for you, you can also say something like, “Thank you for inviting us!”


6. Validate feelings and express your own (in a way that is true for you).

Here are some options: “I know it’s frustrating and disappointing. I’m disappointed too.” If you aren’t disappointed you can still validate their feelings: “I know it’s frustrating. I’m frustrated with this situation too.”


7. Offer an alternative to maintain a connection.

Make sure it’s one that is available to you, one you’re willing to follow through on, and one that doesn’t cross your boundaries. Here are some examples of things you might say:

  • “The kids and I would love to make pie crust together via video.”
  • “We would love to stop by and drop off dessert for your family dinner.”
  • “Let’s set up a video call on Thanksgiving.” “Let’s do after-dinner virtual games.”
  • “We’d love to do a short outdoors, distance visit with masks.”
  • “Can we take care of your holiday centerpiece and drop off or send flowers?”

Setting boundaries can be frightening because the perceived distance created can feel like a rejection.

Another way to look at boundary-setting is an act of love; being true to your needs and desires is a way of being authentic in any relationship.

You might feel like you have to do it coldly or angrily to get your boundary across, but you can be firm yet gentle and warm. Even if the receiver of your boundary becomes cold or even attacking, validating their hurt and reiterating your care for them will help repair the relationship.

In short, have faith that your authentic self is better than any other version of you!

And if you’re finding that you’d like some support in the difficult task of setting new boundaries, we’d be happy to chat and see how we can help.