The holidays can be a precarious time of year. If you’re anything like many Canadians, you’ve been steeped in cheery messages since November 1st, encouraging coming together with family and friends, and opening your wallet to take advantage of the many deals to be had on the open market. For nearly two full months you’ve been reminded of the stock our culture places on spending both money and time on/with those who are meant to matter most.
But what if your life doesn't mirror that narrative? What if the expectation to buy gifts doesn’t fit with your budget or your values? What if it brings you great distress to spend that highly focused time with your family of origin? For a wide variety of reasons, the holidays can be the hardest time of the year for some.
In this post I’ll share some of the strategies that people who struggle over the holiday season have shared with me. Of course, these strategies are context-bound – responses to particular situations – but I believe they can be easily adapted to fit within other circumstances. My hope is that they can be helpful to others, as they have been helpful to those who first shared them with me.
1. Know When to Set Boundaries
Many people find it upsetting to spend focused time with family members who say and do things that are uncomfortable for others to be around. Whether it’s saying hurtful or otherwise problematic statements, drinking excessively and acting brashly, making passive-aggressive comments, or being judgmental – being around family members who act in these ways can come close to ruining the holiday time.
I’ve spoken with several people who have shared how helpful it can be to set clear limits when people act in these ways. If it feels safe, some will tell family members directly that their behaviour is upsetting for them, hoping that they will use that as a cue to make changes. However, being direct isn’t always the best response – especially if you sense that the other person may act more aggressively or make matters worse. In cases like these, folks have shared how they set boundaries in more subtle ways. This might look like retiring to bed early, spending more time with people who feel safer and more comfortable, or making plans that allow for an exit strategy.
Setting boundaries in assertive ways can help when the other person is likely to be respectful, but more covert strategies may be appropriate when others are likely to respond in problematic ways.
2. Seek Support
When things aren’t right with family over the holidays, many people feel understandably discouraged and alone. This makes sense: for the two months leading up to the end of December, we’re surrounded by images of happy families opening gifts and sharing laughter. If our realities don’t fit with those cultural expectations, it’s conceivable that we might feel alienated. For some, the sense of alienation and isolation is as bad or worse than the initial struggles with family.
For this reason, insiders have shared how seeking good support is especially important at this time of year. The sense of isolation that comes with these circumstances can have a direct relationship to what some call “holiday depression”. The folks who have shared this knowledge with me have explained how supportive relationships with others can make a world of difference by helping us stay mindful of the good things in our lives. This awareness contrasts the strong sense of negativity that can come from histories of difficult family interactions.
By seeking support when we feel upset about family dynamics over the holidays, we can maintain a closer relationship to hope and more positive connections with other people. This can help offset the sense of bleakness we might otherwise feel.
3. Have Allies
When two or more people in a family find something about spending time as a whole difficult or painful, it can help if they band together. People have shared with me how having other family members present who feel similarly about the situation can offer reprieve, comfort, and support. For example, one young woman described how her two siblings shared her sense of upset in response to their father’s drinking over the holidays. She explained how the three of them would talk about their feelings on the matter, and how they’d act in subtle supportive ways when their father would do or say something upsetting.
While outside support can certainly be a welcome resource, having others in the fold who “get it” can be a great source of validation when family members act in problematic ways over the holidays.
4. Do Self-Care
Spending time in close proximity with others whose behaviours are challenging can make it feel like you’re in a pressure cooker. In these circumstances, it’s common for people’s stress levels to rise and their sense of wellbeing to decrease. That’s why doing things that help sustain and restore your energy can be vitally important.
Doing self-care can certainly relate to the three points above, as well as other more private practices. For example, one man described how he would make time to write in his journal over the holidays when he was staying with his parents. This helped him to collect his thoughts and feel grounded. Others have affirmed how yoga and meditation practices help them get through adverse family interactions over the holidays. I encourage people to do whatever they believe will help them to feel better in or after the situation, while aligning with their highest self-interest. For some, this might mean choosing to go for a walk to decompress, rather than consuming alcohol or other substances, which they might feel worse about doing in the bigger picture.
When times are tough over the holidays, doing things to pick you up and nourish you can make a noticeable difference.
"This Too Shall Pass"
When time with family feels insufferable, it can be helpful to remember that that time has a very short shelf life within the scope of a year. Reassuring yourself that even though it’s challenging, you know you can make it through, can make a difference when things feel really tough. I like the insider knowledge described above because it can serve as a survival kit through difficult circumstances. By setting boundaries, seeking solid support, having allies you can count on, and doing self-care practices, we can increase our abilities to make it through difficult family interactions at this precarious time of year.
What strategies do you use when you come up against challenges over the holidays?
What do you think could help others who struggle with family issues at holiday times?