By Benjamin Gronich
The holiday season can be a time of joy and excitement, connection and community. The holiday season often means spending significant portions of time with family members. For some, this is a welcome tradition that brings warmth and togetherness. For many, extended time with family can also bring stress, anxiety, and feel like an enormous burden. If the latter description sounds like you, you’re not alone. Many people feel displeasure and resentment surrounding the pressure to engage with family, whether extended or immediate. As a therapist, I frequently hear the sentiment from my clients that visiting family over the holidays often leads to a sense of emotional and psychological regression; that long interactions with the ones who raised us, or grew up with us, somehow transforms us into a younger, less emotionally and psychologically adept version of ourselves. This phenomenon isn’t only reserved for my clients. Therapists are people too, and I have definitively commiserated with colleagues and discussed with my own therapist the unique challenges that navigating complex family dynamics can and often do provide. Family dynamics are intensified during these extended periods of togetherness, and it’s important to openly acknowledge, without guilt or shame, the challenges that can sometimes muddle our ability to feel love towards our loved ones.
And now the question: what can we do? How can we enjoy precious time with our loved ones while also attuning to our emotional needs as they arise? Here are some strategies that could be implemented in a conscious and thoughtful way:
- Set clear and consistent boundaries
Whether it be distant relatives or respected loved ones, it is OK to let people know in advance what your boundaries are and what they should expect if those boundaries are not respected. No one is ever required to tolerate abuse or humiliation. That embarrassing story your dad likes to tell every Christmas for “good fun” to anyone in ear shot about the time you threw your dirty diaper at the neighbor’s dog when you were 2? If it makes you uncomfortable, you’re entitled to tell him that this year you’d like an end to some traditions. And if you find yourself in a situation where your boundaries are being pushed or ignored completely, don’t be afraid to remove yourself from the situation. Perhaps before entering any setting with the potential for your boundaries to be disregarded, develop a contingency plan for some enjoyable activity you can do should you need to remove yourself from the situation.
- Need a break? Take a break!
It’s ok to step away. You don’t need to always be present. Before visiting family for the holidays, map out places where you can go to seclude yourself for a time. Whether it be a finding private room where you can watch an episode of 30 Rock, or going on a long walk through a nearby park, taking time for yourself can be what gives you the fuel to be present when it matters.
Don’t have that much time? A guided 3-minute body scan meditation exercise is a quick and effective way to relieve stress and reset, and all it requires is a secluded place to sit or lie down for a few minutes. Practicing exercises like the one above before visiting family can also increase the effectiveness of these exercises when moments of emotional elevation, stress, and anxiety are more immediate. Remember, exercises like this shouldn’t feel like a burden; they are meant to help you develop tools, so that when you’re in a moment of need, you can feel secure in your ability to pull from a cultivated toolbelt of your own emotional resources.
- Don’t engage in toxic debate
Like a Facebook thread, the big holiday dinner is a terrible space to engage in potentially explosive discourse, whether it be political or otherwise. If you find yourself being pulled into a heated discussion, take a moment to ask yourself “Is this debate worth it? Will this interaction cause me distress?” If you don’t engage, the other party will lose interest. Try arguing with a brick; you won’t last long.
Another tip for preventing animated discourse from turning into full-blown arguments is simply keeping your voice steady. Keeping your voice down tends to challenge others to do the same, and thus will often de-escalate an argument before it has the chance to advance toward hostility.
- Stay present
When visiting family, it’s possible to find ourselves fixating on moments from our past when we were disappointed, let down, hurt, angry, or even betrayed by the people we’ve chosen to spend the holidays with. Whenever I find myself in these moments, I try my best to approach the space with an active mindfulness. I strive to be present, limiting the energy I give to anything besides being in the moment. Time is fleeting, and we only have a finite amount of it to spend with those we choose to call family. Whenever possible, I choose during these moments of togetherness to focus on the positive things that bond us, that help us feel close, in the hopes that the new memories we share will bring us all a little closer.
If you are experiencing any significant life stressors, short-term or long-term mental health consequences, please know that therapy can be a great space to process your experiences, learn how to cope, and move forward. There are a number of therapists who are willing to help. If you are interested in starting therapy, please feel free to contact us.