Being around family for the holidays can cause an array of emotions ranging from excitement and joy to anxiety and disappointment. While many may look forward to a warm and fun family holiday, others may experience anxiety and overwhelm at the thought of dealing with complicated family dynamics. This article is no way meant to demean the importance of family but rather to acknowledge that some family interactions are complicated and can lead to unsettled feelings.
Our popular culture has embraced and highlighted many complicated family relationships. Blockbuster movies depict holiday gatherings full of drama, high conflict, family secrets and a comical look at the cast of characters that make up our families. Movies such as Home for the Holidays, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Home Alone etc., document just some of the funny, irritating, and sometimes ridiculous family dynamics that can ensue while celebrating the holidays.
Here are a few tips and recommendations for those feeling anxious about the upcoming family time:
PREPARE, PREPARE, and PREPARE: If every holiday gathering follows the same script, keep your expectations realistic by preparing for the usual and thinking of ways to roll with the punches. Think ahead of time about potential “escape routes” or ways to graciously dismiss yourself from the conversation. Create distractions from the situations that tend to cause anxiety. Once you begin feeling anxious, bring up a change in topic or redirect the focus to someone else by interjecting something like, “Hey Ted, I noticed you look thinner, have you started a new workout program?”
BE THE CHANGE YOU WANT TO SEE: Often we grow irritated when our family fails to recognize our growth or evolution. What we don’t tend to recognize are the ways that we contribute to this dynamic. If we expect things to be different, then we need to be different. Show your family a different side of yourself. Refuse to step into the assuming the role that you have typically taken on and, show others that you are defining your own role.
ALIGN WITH ALLIES: Typically we have siblings, cousins, or a wise elder with whom we share similar feelings about family gatherings. Make a point to check in with them throughout the night and come up with little ways to blow off steam together. Go for an after dinner walk or find a quiet place to vent your frustrations and swap stories. Camaraderie goes a long way to shore us up and reminds us that we are not alone.
BE MINDFUL OF EATING AND DRINKING: When overwhelmed, stressed or anxious we tend to turn towards food or alcohol to help us cope. By recognizing triggers to our stress, we better position ourselves to avoid feeling guilty about our level of consumption. Over eating and drinking is a common way to cope at family gatherings and can often lead to unfortunate consequences. Think ahead of time about easy to employ coping strategies such as getting outside for a fresh breath of air or making a quick phone call to a friend who can appreciate your situation.
PUT A TIME LIMIT ON YOUR STAY: If possible, plan for staying at the gathering for a limited amount of time. Inform your host that you will have to leave right after dinner, or you can only come for dessert because of another conflict. Sometimes you will receive grief from certain family members for this, but you get to decide what is worse, a little grief or a lot of resentment? In today’s day and age we have multiple families and close family friends, by scheduling short visits at each, we afford ourselves the leverage we need to exit when needed.
LAUGH IT OFF: Sometimes we can take ourselves and our families too seriously. Try to cultivate your sense of humor by recognizing the unique traits and qualities of your clan. If we can find ways to turn uncomfortable dynamics into humorous stories, we allow ourselves the opportunity to create funny memories for years to come. “Remember how Uncle Tom used to always wear biking shorts to dinner and then talk incessantly about his cool sense of style?” Being able to laugh with others about our stories is priceless.
CREATE YOUR CHOSEN FAMILY AND MAKE TIME TO CELEBRATE WITH THEM: We cannot pick the family we are born into, but we can create the family we choose to celebrate with. Make sure you spend time with those you value highly and feel particularly connected to. I recently went to a “Friendsgiving Party” and it was such a nice way to enjoy friends, celebrate our friendship and gear up for the upcoming family festivities. Friends and chosen family can create a place of support and allow us to be seen and understood outside of the confines of our family roles.
OBSERVE AND HONOR WHAT YOU ARE GRATEFUL FOR: It may sound cliché, but it rings true. By focusing on what you are grateful for, you minimize the opportunity for negative feelings. Yes, family can be inconvenient at times, can cause us to feel irritated or angry, but without them we would not be the people we are today. The imprints left behind by our familial experiences and influences, have helped shape us into the highly evolved people that we have become. Whether it is because we choose to fall in line what we were taught or because we choose to challenge the family norm, they have motivated us in a big way to be better people.