Yep. I said “survival” toolbox because for a lot of people, this time of year is challenging. We are all told that this is “family time” and that we are expected to be merry and festive with our extended families. If the holidays are positive and family gatherings conjur up warm and good feelings for you about connecting with loves ones, that is great! There is probably not much need for any tips on how to “survive” much other than the frenzy of holiday shopping, prepping and attending parties and other gatherings.
But if you are increasingly agitated as the gathering dates approach and you’d like to learn some ways to do the best you can with your situation, read on.
The more common concerns circulate around family dynamics. Often old ways of functioning still exist and many adults can feel themselves regressing into childhood as the time nears. If dad still rules the roost, mom still scampers around him and the adult children are expected to follow along (as you always did) for example, this might not necessarily work as well now that you are well into your own adult life, making adult decisions, possibly with a partner and family of your own in tow.
Anticipatory anxiety can come up around so many scenarios; a critical or emotionally disconnected parent or a tenuous relationships with a sibling you live across the country from and barely talk to and now you’re expected to be full of love and cheer towards. Or maybe someone in your family doesn’t accept some aspect of you and makes that clear to all around…and it’s painful.
Family secrets, unresolved trauma or generally highly dysfunctional dynamics can all get activated when together. Maybe you’ve been down this road before. Consider this and fueling the situation with the over-use of alcohol. This is just another added layer to the stressors people have as they prepare to travel. And it can be hard to talk about to friends or others who you perceive to have “happy” families perhaps they just wouldn’t get it.
But year after year, despite some feelings of dread, people go. They hope it will be different than they imagine and they set off despite any angst or trepidation.
If you are one of those people, here are some tools to put in your toolbox before you go:
Say what you need to say. If there is someone you are harboring resentment towards, think carefully about why and consider telling them how you feel, in an open and soft way. If they don’t have the emotional or psychological development to respond positively, you have at least expressed yourself. You have done what you can do. Hopefully, this goes well and there is room for growth.
Set boundaries. For the person with a strong personality, invasive, harsh, critical or generally overbearing and you feel there is no changing that, the next step is to create distance. Either do so verbally or if you prefer, behaviorally. Keep emotional (and possibly physical) distance between you. Keep conversations light and on the surface. Do your best to stay out of the person’s zone during the gathering. This is your assertive right.
Remind yourself what is good. As the time for the gathering approaches, it can be easy to spin up a bit in your own mind. Rather than getting sucked down the drain of an anticipatory negativity bias, spend a few minutes reflecting on the good aspects of your family, the positive times you’ve had or any helpful memories.
Watch the booze. It’s easy to over-use alcohol when you’re uncomfortable or if you just want to numb out. Be mindful that alcohol also has a way of unleashing subterranean emotions and incite conflict when issues are just under the surface. Maintain your ability to observe and participate in the family with clarity.
Monitor your emotions. Stay aware of your feelings, the sensations in your body that indicate tension is rising and why. If needed, take a few deep breaths where you sit. It’s pretty to do this without being noticed. Stay above the fray.
Take five. If breathing deeply is not really doing it, be prepared for a few minutes on the porch in the air or a brisk walk around the block. Make up an excuse to leave if you have to, perhaps you have a phone call you have to make or you’re feeling queasy and need some air. Sometimes dishonesty in the moment is ok.
Have an ally, if possible. If you are attending a gathering with someone who can be “in the know” ahead of time, be sure to express your concerns for not only advance support but support in the moment. A knowing glance towards each other or hand on the shoulder can make you feel less alone. This might be a spouse, boyfriend, friend or other even other family member.
Develop an exit plan. It’s always possible the above just won’t cut if for you and the reality is, you have no control over how others behave. If it’s more than you bargained for and want out, have a plan to leave early if need be.
My last suggestion is to remember you always have a choice. If things are toxic enough and despite repair attempts show no sign of abating, you can opt out of family holiday events. And holidays can mean anything you want them to. Perhaps you can re-write the narrative of what happy holidays look like for you and start a new tradition with your own family or friends.
Need help with a plan to handle your family during the upcoming holidays? Check out my Consultation services.