By Brooke Gomez Fixler, LPC
The holiday season can bring up all sorts of emotions for people. We hope this time can be filled with community, festivities, and celebration. Yet, for many, this season often brings stress about upcoming interactions with difficult family members. The holiday season usually means spending significant amounts of time with one’s immediate and/or distant family members. This may be parents, grandparents, siblings, children, et cetera. When there is a history of family conflict, tension, or rejection, people may struggle to identify how to interact and cope. Below are several strategies to help navigate the holidays and prioritize your personal well-being.
Find a Goal
What would you like to gain from spending the holidays with family? Perhaps there are particular people you’d like to be around (such as a child or a sibling), despite the challenging circumstances. Or perhaps you think that, while you need to make an appearance at holiday events, your primary goal is to feel self-esteem about how you handle yourself. Your goal reflects what it is you want out of the interaction- not what others expect of you. When things get challenging, you can remind yourself of purpose.
Develop a Plan
Ask yourself- “what am I going to do if there’s a difficult situation?” Perhaps you need to take a walk, call a friend, pull up a game on your phone, or do some deep breathing techniques. Make a list of different skills you can use and have it somewhere easily accessible. When we are upset, thinking of our coping skills becomes more difficult because the part of our brain that helps us regulate our emotions slows down. And, when we are around family members, we tend to revert to old behavior patterns. Consider keeping your plan in the notes section of your phone or written down on a notecard you store in your pocket. Before the holiday festivities, you can imagine yourself in one of these challenging family situations and visualize yourself coping successfully.
Boundaries are something we set with ourselves. Then, we can communicate to them to the people involved. For example, if a family member’s comments about weight and dieting are triggering, you might say to them “I’m trying to have a different relationship with food. Can we talk about something else?” If the conversation continues despite your request, your boundary may be to remove yourself from the conversation. In that sense, boundaries aren’t set to control other people’s behaviors, but rather to decide what we are willing to tolerate and how we will respond if our limits are crossed. When we communicate our boundaries with “I” statements and use clear and direct language, we increase our likelihood of being heard effectively.
Access your Supportive People
Who are the people you can turn to that will respond with compassion, empathy, and support? Perhaps these are individuals that will be at the event- family members or even family friends that you know have your back. Or they may include your friends, mentors, or extended family that need to be accessed via call or text. Once you have an idea who you can reach out to for support, let them know now that you may need to lean on them. Share with them what support looks like for you- whether that’s advice, a listening ear, or validation. Giving your support people this information beforehand will better allow them to show up for you in a helpful way. While we don’t get to choose our family of origin, we can lean our friends and community as our family of choice.
We may think of self-care as a bubble bath and essential oils, but true self-care encompasses so much more. Sometimes, self-care is observing our boundaries and taking steps to honor our own needs. This may mean getting a hotel room instead of staying at your childhood family’s home. Perhaps, if you’re traveling by plane, you rent a car to ensure you can take a drive if needed. Self-care around the holidays may even mean making the decision to decline invitations to family events. Listen to your needs by checking in with how you feel throughout the day and ask yourself- “what do I need in this moment to bring me a sense of peace and comfort?” Sometimes, caring for oneself may mean disappointing others. Remember, you are allowed to take care of yourself, even if this means someone else doesn’t agree with or like your decision.
Consider talking with your therapist or mental health provider about these ideas, particularly the ones that may be new for you. Remember, these are skills that take practice, and none of us will do this perfectly. Talking with a therapist or trusted friend before holiday festivities may help troubleshoot any potential barriers. Remember- you are worthy of having a peaceful and fulfilling holiday season.