The holidays can be a difficult time of year.
As a counselor, holidays are sensitive times in my practice (and in my life personally). Research shows that 96 percent of all families have some form of “dysfunction,” meaning one or more people cause an imbalance in the family dynamic. Extreme causes could be addiction, compulsion, mental health, etc., but for the most part, imbalances stem from scenarios where not everyone in the family is able to get their individual needs met.
Someone else is always “taking up more space.”
On a practical level, many people can relate to this in some form within their own family. You’re excited to get together for the holidays, but you kind of know there’s probably going to be some tension within the family. What should be a welcoming family dinner, or an afternoon spent decorating for the holidays, oftentimes turns into a heated debate or an uncomfortable resurfacing of issues between family members. And as a result, you end up reacting in a way that you didn’t want.
In my own case, it really wasn’t until I went through grad school to become a licensed therapist that I realized my own family’s unspoken expectations, usually communicated through a certain look or tone of voice. I had to start by acknowledging the dysfunction, or at least how my family’s rules or norms did not fit with the adult version of who I once was. Once I started understanding that, I was able to begin the process of healing—setting me on the path to breaking the patterns that felt limiting to me, inherited from my childhood.
But holidays can also be a very special time of year. They are a wonderful opportunity for us to witness what is unique and lovely about our families, and at the same time, continue to grow individually as people.
Here are 4 ways I have found to better manage family stress during the holidays, which will hopefully help you do the same.
1. Leading up to the holidays, practice being mindful of your emotional state.
Family systems are not something most people are aware of.
It’s sort of like being a fish swimming in a river. You would never notice the direction of the current you were swimming in, until you tried swimming in a different direction. In many ways, unspoken family norms are the “current” of your family system.
If people go to therapy later in life, sometimes they are then surprised to uncover underlying anxieties, depression, addiction, etc., they never knew was formed within the context of the family system and its subtle dynamics. They see it as an individual issue, rather than a reflection or response to their surroundings.
Leading up to the holidays, especially if you are returning to this old, familiar environment, you may notice the “current” of your family norms. And maybe you have a different “current” now in your everyday life than exists at home. Can you hold space for both? Can it be OK that you notice the differences between what others want from you and what you want, for yourself? What are the feelings that come up? Can you be curious about your own feelings? And most importantly, can you notice these things without letting your emotional state take over, and lead you to react in an unconscious way?
Each of these small signals should remind you to take time to sit, breathe, and try to get into what feelings might be behind those actions—instead of just ignoring them. For some people, anxiety pushes us to “do more” and try to find quick fixes. But I would encourage the opposite. Be curious about where these feelings are coming from within yourself, and take the time to confront them.
This is ultimately how you will grow.
2. Set boundaries—with yourself, and with family members.
Before you get together with your family, get clear on what things you can (and will) do differently than you have in the past.
Any time you start things differently than your family expects, there will likely be some pushback. The way we interact as a family gets ingrained over time. So if you are looking to change yourself or just change the family dynamic, be prepared for some tension.
Have a plan for what you’re going to do to take care of yourself if you do get triggered, and don’t be afraid to give yourself what you need. If you know you are going to need some space, have a phrase you can use to remove yourself from the situation. These things take courage, but they allow you to step away, reconnect, and come back in a more grounded state. And by making this conscious decision, you will hopefully be more able to connect with your loved ones.
3. Acknowledge that you don’t always need to be “overly positive” during the holidays either.
Especially for people who have experienced some form of loss in their lives, the holidays tend to bring up underlying emotions that can be difficult.
It’s important to acknowledge that just because you feel something other than “overwhelming positivity” doesn’t mean you’re a Grinch. Families are complex. People are complex. The more space we leave for all parts of the people we love, including ourselves, the greater the opportunity for personal growth.
Just remember to acknowledge how you’re feeling, and try not to suppress it. Don’t feel the need to plan more holiday activities, bake more Christmas cookies, or do more shopping. Avoid go, go, go mode, because all that is going to do is make you more anxious.
Instead, focus on self-care. Have conversations with people you trust. And do your best to stay in the present moment without letting your emotions sweep you away.
4. Bring conscious awareness to each and every interaction.
There’s always somebody who “ruins Thanksgiving.”
In order to keep that from being you, it’s important to track your emotional state in a conscious way and remember your own triggers. Let’s say there is one family member you want to connect with, but are aware that you have a relationship that can get tense real quick—which may negatively affect the rest of the family. Don’t expect the other person to be someone different than who they are. You cannot control or change them, which means the responsibility of your own emotional state is on you.
Breathe. Observe the difficult feelings you feel in yourself, and try to pinpoint which types of conversations trigger these negative emotions in the first place.
If you notice you are having quick emotional reactions (i.e. anger or frustration), try to continuously remind yourself to hold space for multiple types of feelings. Allow the other person to feel how they feel, and allow yourself to feel how you feel, simultaneously.
This is what love within a family is all about: allowing each other to have our own thoughts, live within our individual “rivers” of life—and at the same time, leave space to accept one another for who we truly are.