Painful Holidays: Three Challenging Situations and How to Manage Them

Holidays mean good cheer and family get togethers for many, celebrating our most important relationships, enjoying good food and each other’s companionship.  But for some, the holidays can be a struggle because of painful or challenging situations.

Here are three challenging situations and how to manage them as optimally as possible:

  1. The holidays are stressful because of less than idyllic family get togethers possibly involving conflict, unresolved issues, substance abuse and possibly emotional pain.  If you are dreading your annual holiday gatherings, this can cause a lot of anticipatory worry and unease about the events to come.
    1. Make a plan for how you will handle difficult situations if they arise.
    2. Set boundaries for yourself and stay committed to self-care in ways that work for you.  If things get heated, avoid getting pulled into the vortex by politely excusing yourself and stepping outside for a few deep breaths of fresh air.  Or go for a short walk.  People often regress to prior dysfunctional dynamics and roles when with family and it’s important to remember you have a choice.  If it really gets bad, you can leave.  If there is a lot of negativity it can be easy to miss the good that exists somewhere.  Don’t let your negativity bias keep you from noticing things that are positive like special connections with particular people outside of the problematic dynamic and the places in your area where the beauty of the holidays are visible.
    3. Take in the good, if it exists.  It’s easy to put the focus on the negative and sacrifice the positive.
  2. You are alone and don’t have any family to be with over the holidays and this time is a painful reminder of your isolation.  Loneliness is practically an epidemic of sorts in our country.  Disconnection and not feeling a “part of” can be very distressing for us, being that we are wired to connect.  Remember that family is what you make it and doesn’t necessarily need to be of blood or in name.
    1. Seek family in your friendships.  Build a community of support with people who care about you.  Whether you have recently moved or struggle to present yourself to others for possible connection, make an effort to find others you can relate to.  There are meet-up groups created just for this in many communities.  There are many others out there like you but you must put yourself out there.  If this is too difficult for you, consider counseling to free yourself from whatever blocks you.
    2. Seek out the good.  It is there somewhere, though maybe hard to find.
    3. Practice self-care in the ways that have meaning for you.
  3. You are grieving the loss of a loved one.  Grief has many faces and is without real definition as it’s a multi-faceted response to loss.  The holidays can be incredibly painful for those who are still in the process and stages of grief.
    1. Seek support.  Whether it’s family, friends, or your faith, it’s helpful to be able to lean on something or someone.  The holidays are triggers for many who are grieving so you might see if you can find a support group in your area.  Find a charitable organization to help someone else as a way to bring about the positive emotions associated with altruism.
    2. Be gentle with yourself .  Do things that feel good and are soothing.  If you feel lost in your grief or stuck in a sense of mourning, it might be what is called “complicated grief” and this is a place where counseling might serve well.

No matter what meaning you currently attach to the holidays, be mindful of how can do them in the best way possible for you.  If this time is a struggle, keep your focus on what you need to do to take care of YOU.  You don’t need to go through it alone.

If you or someone you know in in crisis:

Toll-free 1-(800) 273-8255

Lisa Brookes Kift, MFT

Lisa Brookes Kift, MFT

Lisa Brookes Kift, MFT is the creator of with tools for emotional and relationship health and is the author of Therapy-At-Home Workbooks® for individuals and couples. She is a frequent consultant for the media having appeared in,, and others. Lisa has a private practice in Marin County, CA and offers online therapy to residents of California.

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