It’s that time of year again! The weather is frightful, Christmas music is everywhere, and you’re stuck with your family like socks in a dryer without Cling Free.
Many of us spend more time with family during the last five weeks of the year than we do the other forty-seven weeks combined. For some, this is a time of joy, but for those who come from a dysfunctional family, it can feel as if there isn’t enough spiked eggnog in the world to make the holidays bearable. If you don’t get along well with relatives, the holidays can appear daunting and difficult. The good news is that this time of year is survivable and can even be pleasant if you do a little preparation. Here are some effective strategies to get you through family holidays with your sanity intact.
Go With No Expectations
Don’t expect to heal old wounds. Don’t use the holidays as a time or place to restore relationships, rebuild family ties, or overcome childhood issues. If that happens, great, but most likely, if you set this expectation, you will be disappointed. Go in with no expectations that you will be treated any differently than you have been treated in the past. Instead, adopt the mindset that you are at this family gathering to be of service, and to give love, even to those who may not be deserving of it. You are there to give love even to those who may not be capable of adequately returning this love. If you approach the family holiday in the spirit of service and with no expectations, you reduce the likelihood of psychological harm, and emotionally you will be doing the very best you can with the family dynamic you have been given.
Don’t Expect People to Change
Don’t expect people to be any different from who they are. The person or persons who irritated you last year will probably do so this year, so be prepared. This is true whether it is an uncle who drinks too much, parents who criticize, or a sibling who has to control everything. Going to your holiday gathering hoping people will be different this year just sets you up for disappointment.
Practice Self-Care and Self-Love
Before you even book the flight, gas up the car, or walk through your family’s door, engage in a healthy practice of self-love and appreciation. Remind yourself that you are not the same child who once lived among your nuclear family. You have grown and flourished and made your own way in this world, and you are no longer defined by childhood family roles and ideals. The stronger you are emotionally going into the family gathering, the better you will be at handling dysfunctional family dynamics.
Identify Things that are Going to Trigger You
Be cognizant of specific things you know are going to trigger you. Be mindful of the fact that history tends to repeat itself. Think back to past holidays that were especially difficult for you and the situations that they entailed. This preparation will prevent you from being caught off guard.
Next, have a plan in advance for how you are going to respond to each of these triggers. Perhaps you may decide that every time you feel stifled at your parents’ home, you will walk the dog for ten minutes. Or as soon as your sister picks a fight with you, you will take a deep breath and change the subject to something more positive. When in doubt, visualize doing something soothing such as stepping outdoors, texting a friend, or initiating a playful game with your young nephew.
Plan an Escape Route
Rent a car so you have control to freely leave if necessary, and have a plan in mind should you want to book a hotel room or schedule an early flight home. Knowing you have an escape route will ease your mind and provide you with a sense of control.
Limit Your Length of Stay
If your family gathering is a few days in length, schedule a reprieve in the middle such as meeting with an old childhood friend, sightseeing, or catching a movie. If your family obligation involves only a dinner, and your family is one to snack, socialize, or play card games beforehand, find out what time dinner will actually be served and arrive just early enough to be comfortably seated at the table, and then leave as early as you can.
Make Sure You Have an Ally, Even if that Means Bringing One
Having a support person lined up is crucial. This can be a cousin you pull into another room to say, “Can you believe that just happened??!” Or it can be a friend or partner you bring along who can debrief with you throughout your stay. The important thing is to have someone who knows you well, who understands your family dynamic, and who you can turn to for support.
When family conflict runs high, or a relative says something upsetting, becoming angry or spewing a comeback won’t make the situation better. Instead, remain calm and try practicing mindfulness. Excuse yourself and find a quiet room to escape for a few moments of meditation and slow, deep breaths, or just take a walk around the block. The holiday gathering isn’t the best time to tell the family member that what they said was hurtful. So, after you have meditated and taken those calming breaths or that walk, briefly journal what was said and how it made you feel, and save it for a later conversation.
Toss out all notions of achieving perfection. Instead, try to create holiday moments that are special to you by paying particular attention to the warmth of the fireplace, the richness of your hot chocolate, or the laughter of children. Discover joy in the little things found in the present moment.
Plan Responses in Advance
If you predict intrusive questions from family members about your dating life, employment status, or your plans for having children, come prepared with some canned responses that provide minimal information without leaving you feeling exposed. Know also that sometimes the best answer to an intrusive question is no answer, or a reply in the form of a question such as, “Why do you ask?” Just because a relative asks a question, does not mean that you need to reveal information about yourself that leaves you feeling uncomfortable. Have some quick go-to coping strategies in mind before you get there.
Control What You Can Control
Whether your family has profoundly hurt you or regularly offends you, use holiday time to become an even stronger person. You and you alone control your thoughts and feelings, so think what you want, laugh to yourself, and pride yourself in your skill at navigating a complicated family landscape. When you meet dysfunction with incredibly healthy functioning on your part, you win every time, and you maintain control over yourself and your emotions.
Pretend You are an Anthropologist
Seriously. Psychologists know that an effective way to minimize the intensity of a difficult situation is to emotionally distance yourself by adopting a stance of observer as opposed to participant. One way to do this is to pretend you are doing an anthropological study on how this group of people celebrates the holidays, observing closely but keeping an emotional distance. This way, feuds or confrontations that erupt won’t get under your skin. This is a light and playful way to decrease the impact the family dysfunction has on you.
Schedule a Supportive Check-In Near the Middle of the Event
Schedule a check-in session with a treasured support person who knows your family situation. This could be a phone call with a therapist, a close friend, or other support person. Keep them on speed dial. Schedule a time to break away near the middle of the family event and check in with this person who can provide support and help you keep things in perspective.
Stay Grounded by Sticking to at Least One Aspect of Your Daily Routine
One of the reasons that going home for the holidays is difficult is that you’re removed from your regular routine. Instead, you become fully immersed in your family and your hometown, and this unusual routine becomes the norm for the holiday. Rather than allow the family schedule to dictate your visit, keep at least one aspect of your routine that you would normally do at home. Whether it is your morning run, a ritual of going out for coffee and the paper, walking the dog, or listening to your favorite podcast in the afternoon, bring one of these activities with you to the holidays. Doing at least one thing each day that you’d normally do at home is a great way to exercise some autonomy and remain connected to yourself.
Maintain Healthy Boundaries
If someone tries to criticize you or throw you off balance, remind yourself not to personalize it. How people act and behave is a reflection of who they are and has nothing to do with you. Even though it can be difficult, try not to personalize hurtful comments. Remind yourself not to take the bait and rise above the clamor by mentally sending love to everyone before you walk in the door.
Carefully Determine if Going Home is Really All That Good for You
Many people feel obligated to attend family gatherings during the holidays, and never consider that staying home instead or celebrating with friends is an option. While not seeing family during the holidays may be complicated, for some people it is the wiser move. If family gatherings consistently cause you to feel emotionally battered or traumatized, you may wish to reconsider attending at all.
Schedule Post-Holiday Self-Care
If you anticipate an emotional hangover after spending time with family, take steps now to schedule a special date, event, or relaxing retreat to attend as soon as the holiday gathering is over. Just knowing that this cherished activity is coming up will be an emotional boost when you are in the midst of holiday stress. Knowing that you have a spa session, massage, or evening out with a best friend will help you get through the holiday. It will also help you to de-stress and process the events of the holiday once it is over, and help you put it in proper perspective.
Most importantly, be kind to yourself this holiday season. The holidays can be difficult as they are a time of reflection and a time that we most strongly feel loss. Your family has the potential to trigger you more deeply than any co-worker, friend, or lover, as they are a bridge to childhood issues and a reminder of the past. When you feel yourself regressing emotionally, or becoming angry, practice loving self-talk by telling yourself that you are perfect, whole, and complete exactly the way you are. And remember, this is temporary…the New Year is just around the corner.