How to navigate Uncle Joe's sexist jokes, your sisters Tofurkey and other button-pushing events.
My last article was about the difficulty some of us find with getting into the holiday spirit, for various reasons. While society tells us that this is supposed to be a wonderful, joyful time of celebration with family and friends, that's not the case for all of us.
Being separated from loved ones can interfere with the enjoyment of the holiday season. If you have lost someone who is important to you, it might seem like a black cloud is hanging over you during the holidays. The stress of finding a way to pay for holiday gifts when finances are stretched can cause anxiety and depression. And for some of us gathering with family is more stressful than fun, due to strained relationships and unspoken resentments.
Although the holidays can sometimes be stressful, these three strategies can help you cope.
#1: Set boundaries
So your family tradition is to gather at a relative's house for dinner, but you don't get along with some of the family members who attend, and you're dreading the entire event. You can feel more in control by setting limits. How much time can you be with these family members before you stop having fun? Consider limiting the amount of time you spend with them to reflect the amount of time that is enjoyable for you.
Rather than arriving at 4 p.m. and spending the night, would you enjoy yourself more if you arrive at 5 p.m. and leave after dinner around 8? On the other hand, if you find yourself filled with so much anxiety about attending this function that it ruins your whole holiday — for example, you spend weeks fretting about it beforehand and weeks recovering from it afterwards — maybe you should consider why you are attending at all. Is it possible to visit with those family members you like spending time with at a different point during the holidays and skipping the dinner with the people you don't get along with?
Bucking family traditions can cause conflict, but you have every right to assert yourself respectfully and set limits on what you are willing to do. This is particularly true if the reason you don't get along with family members is related to abuse. For your own protection, or that of your family — especially children — it is appropriate to set limits in such a situation and you need not apologize for doing so. Children don't have control over where they go and they shouldn't be subjected to dysfunctional or abusive family interactions.
#2: Set realistic expectations for yourself and others
Ask yourself what you expect from the holiday events you plan to attend. Do you have a fantasy in your mind about what the holidays are supposed to be? Our cultural expectation is that everyone will be filled with gratitude, joy and brotherly love. In reality, people often act out because of the stress they feel during the holidays. Think about past years. If one of your siblings tends to drink too much alcohol and pick fights with the rest of the family every year, it is realistic to expect that this might happen again.
When you picture the Norman Rockwell holiday celebration, are you reminding yourself of this pattern which has occurred year after year? Or are you imagining that this time will be different? You can't control other people's behavior, but anticipating patterns which have been repeated in the past might help you feel more in control. Once you recognize these patterns you can plan ahead for how you might react differently this time. In the case of the drunk sibling picking fights, you will be less likely to take the bait if you stay sober — or at least drink less alcohol than you normally would. By keeping a clear head. you will avoid being taken by surprise when this behavior occurs.
#3: Make time for the things that are important to you
How do you want your holiday celebrations to be? You ultimately decide how you spend your time. Do you want to go shopping? Ice skating? Eat large meals with family and friends? Shower loved ones with expensive presents or exchange only handmade gifts? Maybe you want to go somewhere tropical instead of visiting family. You can decide whether you change the way you celebrate the holidays completely, or simply make small tweaks in your family's traditions to create a holiday celebration that is special to you. Do what works for you and your family!
It's important to maintain your usual healthy habits during the holidays, when you're under more stress. That might mean meditating, getting regular exercise, journaling or talking with a trusted friend. Once again, setting boundaries will ensure that your time to practice these healthy habits is protected, and you are likely to feel much better if you maintain these routines.
Using these three strategies, the holidays can be more manageable. Happy holidays!
Laura J. Reagan, LCSW-C