5 Tips for Surviving the Holidays When You Have Difficult Relationships with Family
Are you dreading the holiday season? For people with strained or estranged relationships with family members, the holidays can feel like salt in a wound. The holiday season can bring up feelings of dread, anxiety, and guilt. Perhaps you are estranged from family and experience intense guilt and grief for not celebrating with them. Perhaps you are not estranged, but the relationship feels plagued by criticism, obligation, and tense, hostile disagreements. If holiday gatherings feel tense and stressful rather than celebratory, this article is for you.
1. Get in touch with what you want.
The noise of others' expectations can make it difficult to know what we want. Try journaling, talking to a therapist, or talking with a trusted friend. Maybe you want to spend the holiday with friends. Maybe you want to spend it with your family and need to put boundaries in place for your emotional safety. Maybe you want to spend the day hiking, volunteering, or doing something totally unrelated to the holiday. Think of this as a brainstorming exercise. Be mindful of thoughts like "I can't do that because so-and-so will be upset." Focus on what feels appealing to you and allow thoughts about what others will think or how they will react to float by like leaves on a stream.
2. Put social media and pop culture in context.
If we look at social media posts as representations of reality, it seems all or most of our friends are having idyllic family get-togethers where everyone seems to be feeling great, close, and connected. The same goes for the endless marketing campaigns showing happy families gathering together. Given the over-representation of happy, uncomplicated family relationships in media, it makes sense if you feel like you are the only one with difficult, complicated family relationships. Remind yourself that people are less likely to be open about their struggles than their happy moments. Remind yourself that tense, anxious moments at the dinner table do not sell products, and as such we are rarely exposed to family conflict in pop culture and advertising. You are not alone in having a complicated relationship with your family, nor are you alone in having mixed feelings about the holidays.
3. Practice being open about your feelings with trusted people.
While being open about our feelings can be intimidating and scary, it is an opportunity to connect and be understood. This isn’t to say you should feel like you must share your feelings at every opportunity, or with everyone. It is perfectly okay to be selective about sharing your vulnerabilities. That said, when you take the risk to share, you might find there are others in your social circle who feel similarly. If talking to people you know currently feels emotionally unsafe, consider seeking out a therapist or a support group either online or in-person.
4. Practice self-care.
I am sure we are all tired of hearing the term “self-care.” To be clear, self-care does not have to be expensive, fancy, or lengthy. Practicing self-care is especially important when you are preparing to attend a potentially stressful event or unwind after one. Self-care looks different for everyone. Maybe you feel soothed by a bath or shower, a long walk, blasting music in your car, or calling a supportive friend. If possible, try scheduling time for self-care before and after an event. You can even plan to take breaks during the event, such as going for a walk or stepping away to listen to a favorite song.
5. Know your boundaries and communicate them.
You are not mean, selfish, or bad for having limits and saying no. Someone having a reaction to your boundary does not mean it was wrong to set it or that you must walk it back.
Here are a few examples of boundaries:
“I am unable to attend the full gathering this year. Here is when I am available to visit.”
“I am uncomfortable discussing this topic. Let’s change the subject.”
“I am not okay with comments about my body or how much I am eating. I will have to leave if this continues.”
Of course, there is so much more to handling difficult relationships than the five tips contained in this article. I hope these tips can add to the tools in your toolbox to handle the holiday season.
I'm Easin Beck, MFT (she/they), and this is where I share my thoughts about therapy-related things!