There is a universal expectation and cultural push to spend the holidays with family. Even though the malls pipe in holiday cheer, lights twinkle on houses, and TV ads depict families frolicking in the snow, it’s important to keep in mind that this can be a time of great ambivalence and emotional overwhelm for many people. We need to normalize for friends and loved ones that this time of year can be rife with unique and difficult triggers including: feelings of loss and grief; resentment; guilt; anger; anxiety; and even dread.
Despite the pressure to go home for the holidays, many people deserve and need permission to safely and non-judgmentally process the options of either shortening or avoiding family visits that are toxic. It’s understandable that for some people it’s too emotionally uncomfortable to completely disconnect from extended family. In those cases, it’s worth exploring the strategies of setting limits or choosing to visit with “escape clauses” that provide an exit or excuse to leave if the gathering becomes negative or abusive.
Here are some additional suggestions to help navigate potential emotional minefields and vulnerabilities during the holiday season:
- Pre-plan “safe” conversations, consciously choose who to sit next to and who to avoid during a family gathering.
- Drive separately to family functions so you can leave when you choose, and stay at a hotel instead of the house you grew up in so you have safe space to re-group.
- Consider connecting with surrogate family and friends instead of toxic family, and create new holiday traditions that do feel safe and meaningful.
- Use resources such as 12 step meetings, online chat rooms, and support groups that reinforce the right to set limits while offering alternative venues for social gatherings
- Spend time doing volunteer work, focusing on altruistic endeavors that create perspective and rekindle a sense of gratitude.
- Consider the role that spirituality and ritual can play in adding comfort, new meaning, and new memories to this emotionally challenging time of year.
In the next installment we’ll look at the connection between the holidays, stress and self-destructive behaviors.