For many, the holidays are a time to be cherished. They are a time of festivity and celebration and often referred to as “the most wonderful time of the year.” But for others, the holidays represent something else altogether—a stressful time of year when money is tight, shops are crowded, and family is more than you can handle or less than you may want. Your holiday spirit may be tinged (or even dominated) by worries whether you are dealing with in-laws, your own family, or both sides. Here are some holiday survival guide tips to help you embrace and enjoy the upcoming weeks.
1. Set boundaries
For many, returning home or spending extended time with relatives can mean rejoining an environment characterized by arguments, volatility, or other dysfunctional patterns. Returning to an environment like this is not something we look forward to, but is rather an event that we treat with dread, anxiety, or resentment. Having these feelings stirred up can make getting through the holidays a difficult experience. If you find that interacting with certain family members (or even your family as a whole), is a challenge, remember that it is ok for you to take care of yourself. Setting boundaries is not only critical to preserving your own happiness, but are a normal part of healthy, functional relationships. However, doing so may cause feelings of guilt or failure if boundaries have been unclear or neglected in the past.
It’s important to remember that boundaries are not about restricting or controlling the other person, but are about maintaining your own happiness and well-being; if your great aunt offers you a third slice of pie after dinner, you would (probably) turn it down, right? It isn’t because you want to stop her from offering pie to anyone, but rather because you know that if you take it, neither you or your great aunt will be better for it. The problem, then, comes when your great aunt then begins to insist that you really ought to take that third slice of pie, or your dad insists that you ought to spend all day with your entire family, or your sister insists that you buy gifts for all the kids. Take this for what it is—their advice and their opinion. Consider what is right for you, and what you can and cannot handle, then find flexibility and compromise where you can.
While it may be easier to turn down that slice of pie, it’s harder to set boundaries with a family member offering (usually unsolicited) life advice, political commentary, religious beliefs, or issues regarding family planning. These issues are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what can come up at family visits during the holidays. Setting a boundary is different than making a request in the the sense that boundaries have actions attached to them. Oftentimes, they are done by well-meaning relatives, but certain topics are also broached intentionally to provoke reactions. Setting boundaries in these situations can be tricky.
Holiday Survival Tip! Make the Request then Set the Boundary
Setting boundaries in these situations can be tricky. First, make the request to change the discussion while redirecting topics. If the request is not respected, set the boundary. Here’s a quick example:
Aunt: “So! You two aren’t getting any younger! When are you going to have kids?”
Response (Request): “I love spending time with the family over the holidays, but that is just not a topic I want to get into right now. I heard you were going on a trip soon!”
Aunt: “Yes, yes, but you both really should start thinking about when you want to have kids. You want kids right?”
Response (Boundary): “I appreciate your concern for my family, but like I said, it’s just not something I want to talk about right now. I’ve been looking forward to catching up with you, but if you want to keep talking about kids, I’m going to have to go join the others in the living room.”
Aunt: “Ok! Touchy! Yes, we are going on a fantastic cruise in February”
What did you actually tell your Aunt here? You told her that if she kept pressing about children that you would end the conversation. Is your Aunt happy? No probably not. She may even talk to your mother about it, but you let her know what was and wasn’t ok with you without being disrespectful. They don’t all go this smoothly and setting boundaries effectively takes practice and does produce a certain amount of tension. At least in this example, your Aunt decided that catching up with you was more important than pressing about kids.
2. Talk through unspoken expectations
Oftentimes, conflict in these situations can be the result of unspoken expectations (and the disappointment that follows). Because of this, another good idea is to discuss expectations with your family ahead of time and to voice concerns that you may have where possible. Individuals whose major stressor this time of year is financial in nature might benefit from clarifying expectations around how many gifts are to be purchased or how much money is to be spent on each. For others, the stress of feeling “forced” to hang out with family for extended periods of time may be the main source of anxiety; don’t be afraid to clarify the time you’re expected to arrive or how long you are expected to stay.
Don’t forget to talk to the most important person about their expectations for the holidays, either—yourself. Engage in some self-reflection about how you’re feeling about the upcoming holidays and taking emotional inventory maybe you’re feeling anxious because you expect things to go poorly? Or maybe you’re feeling sad because the festivities are falling short of the magical holiday you remember from your childhood? Avoid thinking in absolutes. When we think in absolutes, we set ourselves up for failure (eg. Christmas will be ruined if…). Whatever the feeling (and whatever the reason), it’s important to understand where you are before you can begin to alleviate the distress.
Holiday Survival Tip!
Set your expectations around things that you can control. We end up feeling disappointed, frustrated, and hurt when we set our expectations based on how others act or how a situation or event will turn out. The problem with this approach is that other people’s behavior and words are completely out of control. We end up giving away too much power of our own emotional state to people who at best are unaware and at worst will misuse it. Here’s a quick example!
Unhealthy: The only way Christmas will go well is if mom doesn’t make a comment about my weight.
Healthy: Christmas will go better if I am able to manage my emotions and set boundaries if/when mom makes a comment about my figure.
3. Watch out for “shoulds”
The typical stressors of this time of year can contribute enough worry and frustration to affect even the most enthusiastic holiday spirit. However, we often fail to see the normalcy of this reaction; we as though we should be excited, or we should be enjoying the holiday more than we actually are. These “should statements” can lead to guilt, which is a way of compounding the problem even further. Now we’re not only dreading the holidays, but we’re feeling bad for dreading the holidays. Check your internal dialogue—are you beating yourself up? Are you trying to force yourself to feel a certain way?
In those situations where you’re beginning to feel less than completely enamored with the holiday spirit, it’s ok to “fake it ’til you make it”; sometimes if you pretend to be full of holiday cheer for half an hour, you’ll find yourself actually getting wrapped up in the festivities. However, it’s also ok to excuse yourself when you’ve had enough. Find some space for yourself and give yourself the opportunity to recharge and recuperate before re-engaging. Take things an hour or half an hour at a time, and try to look for the parts of the holiday that you do enjoy. Allow yourself to look forward to those things that do bring you pleasure, and trust yourself to make it through the things that don’t.
Holiday Survival Tip! – Change Shoulds to Coulds
As with many of these tips, this extends well past the holidays. This tip is also one of the easiest changes to make that and has a direct and immediate impact on how you feel. Every time you catch yourself saying should either about yourself or others, stop and immediately replace it with “could.” How does that one word substitution change your feelings?
One Last Holiday Survival Tip!
Have you ever found yourself back at home as an adult stomping angrily up the stairs to your room after some minor tiff with a parent only to reflect, “What in the world was that about?” just moments later? When we go back to places from our past, we all have a tendency to emotionally regress back to the age we were when we last lived there. This emotional age regression is why you go on an all night bender with old friends from college despite putting your “partying days” behind you a decade ago. You’re not in your 30’s or 40’s with a successful career, you are 21 again that night. The same concept applies when we go home for the holidays. We have the tendency to emotionally go back to being a teenager again. Petty fights with a younger sibling, power struggles with parents, crossed arms, and eye-rolls all come back without us even noticing at times. Maybe you were the teenager that tried to be perfect in an attempt to gain your parents’ approval. Whatever you were back then, you are different now as an adult. Remind yourself of that fact and respond to your family from the adult voice.
No matter what situation or family environment you are walking into over the holidays, it’s important to take care of yourself and enjoy your time off from day-to-day routines and responsibilities. Reach out to a professional if you are having a difficult time coping with the holiday season. We are here to help.
Happy Holidays from the Bergen Counseling Center!