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Facing Family Togetherness

December 13, 2019

By Jessica Smith, BSN, RN

As the holiday season approaches, I am reminded of the oft-quoted line in A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

Holidays have a way of bringing out both the best and worst in people. We enter the season with childlike enthusiasm, anticipating parties and get-togethers overflowing with love and laughter. We are inundated with images of cheery families wearing matching pajamas, luxury cars topped with giant red bows, and football-field-length dining tables adorned in a manner rivaling the British royal family.

For some, the holidays genuinely deliver, but the rest of us are left overextended, exhausted, and reeling from unmet expectations. If you find yourself dreading the holidays, you are not alone. Thankfully, there are ways to make the season enjoyable that do not require adopting a new family or abruptly fleeing the country.

Manage Your Expectations

Having unrealistic expectations will lead to frustration and disappointment. Commercials and social media shouldn’t set the standard for real life. We must ask ourselves, “What am I expecting this year? Are these expectations attainable, or do I need to adjust them?” It can be painful to accept our life “as is” if it differs from an idealized version we’ve spent years chasing.

There is freedom in radical acceptance of our present reality, but sometimes we must grieve the sense of loss that comes with that. Once we let go of what we believe the holidays should be, we can create the experiences we desire for ourselves. Don’t hesitate to work through this process with a therapist or a trusted friend as it can be difficult to do alone.

Get curious about your needs, and be honest about them. Do you host an elaborate Christmas dinner every year but would prefer someone else to take charge? Do you need to establish time limits on gatherings with certain family members? Would this year be better spent relaxing at home with your immediate family versus your extended family? Traditions are important, but they become an issue when they take precedence over your mental health.

Some families forcefully assert, “Family is everything,” but setting healthy boundaries for yourself is not disloyal. Sometimes the phrase “Family is everything” is code for “Do as we say,” but healthy familial bonds do not require sacrificing your well-being. Psychologist Dr. Nicole LePera affirms the value of autonomy: “We are interdependent creatures. Our relationships are important, but so is our autonomy. Interdependence says: ‘I can love you, I can be deeply connected to you, but I do not sacrifice or betray myself in order to gain this connection.'”

Don’t Try to Change People

A considerable amount of conflict during the holidays comes from suddenly being near other people with whom we fundamentally disagree. Not to mention, these people seem to have been born without a filter. We all know we shouldn’t discuss politics, religion, or sex at the dinner table, but the truth is any topic of discussion can escalate into an argument or shouting match if we allow it. As human beings, we have many differing opinions. We are also relational creatures desiring to be known and understood. When a person we love disagrees with or disapproves of our life choices, it can feel like rejection. If our self-worth is dependent upon the approval of others, we spend an inordinate amount of time and energy trying to convince them to align with our values.

Remind yourself often you do not need to convince anyone to agree with you. Emotionally healthy individuals can remain composed in the presence of opposing beliefs because they don’t need acceptance from others to feel valuable. They inherently hold themselves in high esteem, regardless of outside influences. Being around people who are self-assured and allow for differences of opinion is a breath of fresh air. This level of emotional maturity may be absent in your own family, but you can certainly choose it for yourself.

Deciding not to engage in futile debates and rejecting the urge to seek outside approval may require some practice. You don’t have to counter every statement with which you disagree – some people are trying to push your buttons. Rather than reacting out of defensiveness, try saying nothing while listening. Listening does not mean you agree; it merely demonstrates you can receive the other person’s point of view without judgment. If you find yourself with people who relentlessly try to impose their beliefs upon you, you can respond lovingly and firmly:

“We believe different things, and we can agree to disagree.”

“I feel comfortable with my views on this, and I’m not debating it with you.”

“I’m taking a break from this conversation.”

Take time out for self-care to prevent burnout and disillusionment. Nourish yourself well, participate in what you enjoy, and don’t spend more than you can afford (financially or emotionally).

Recognize Emotional Triggers

Set aside some time to identify your emotional triggers and be mindful of how they manifest so you can deal with them effectively should they occur. Coping ahead of time is a Dialectical Behavior Therapy skill, and it can be quite helpful when confronted with holiday stressors. One of my triggers during the holidays is hearing relatives speak negatively about my late father. The trigger manifests in a tightness that moves from my chest to my throat. When this happens, I immediately ask the person to refrain, and if they continue, I leave the room until the conversation ceases. Knowing this ahead of time empowers me because I have a plan in place if the situation arises. I give grace to the person who spoke unkindly of him because old habits die hard, but I can honor my own needs in the process. Extending kindness to others doesn’t require betraying ourselves.

Maintain Your Mental Health During the Holidays

“Family dynamics” refers to a family’s unique pattern of relating and interacting with one another. These learned patterns strongly influence the way we view ourselves and the world around us, and each family member tends to play a role within the family unit. When we visit during a family holiday, it is easy to subconsciously assume that role again, even when it no longer serves us. Dysfunctional family dynamics can be caused by past trauma, which is broadly defined by Jennifer Rollin, LCSW-C, as “anything that overwhelms your nervous system and ability to cope.” Trauma can manifest in a person’s life as perfectionism, people-pleasing, avoidance, anxiety, low self-worth, busyness, and a need to feel “in control.” You may notice these tendencies occur more frequently during the holidays. If your family has been a source of distress for you, working with a therapist is a way to practice self-care.

Taking a friend along to your family gatherings may provide a welcome distraction and help you maintain your mental health during the holidays. If you have a partner, identify in advance some specific ways he or she can help you avoid or lessen the intensity of interactions with family members. I have learned from experience that my spouse cannot read my mind, and it is my responsibility to voice my needs. He has since become an essential support person for me in high-stress situations.

Having an enjoyable holiday season is possible, and it is never too late to have the experiences you desire. Setting realistic expectations, accepting people as they are, and honoring your own needs may help turn your greatest fears into your most cherished holiday memories.