By Mary Foston-English, MFT
Assistant Director, Stanford Faculty and Staff Help Center
When it comes to family gatherings during the holidays, do you find yourself expressing overwhelming joy about the pending celebrations or shying away from them? Be proactive this season. Think about how you would like to spend the holidays. Will you celebrate the same as in past years, or do you have a desire to do something different?
Family relationships are complicated because of the expectation that “we are all the same” because we’re part of the same family. The expectations we have of each other can make it difficult to “be ourselves,” especially if we have different values and goals than those of other family members. Because of pre-established roles of who we are supposed to be and how we are supposed to act (based on gender, birth order, family rules, family rituals), family systems do not always give us the space to be who we are.
Families are “systems,” so when a change occurs, the balance is disrupted. Keeping that balance is complicated because change is inevitable; people do change and grow despite the pressure to conform and keep the balance.
It’s More Challenging During the Holidays
Expectations are higher during the holidays because of family rituals and assumptions about “how the holidays are supposed to be.” Some of the assumptions we have about the holidays include:
- “Holidays are supposed to be joyous and happy.”
- “I don’t have a family, so there’s no reason to celebrate.”
- “The bigger the gift and/or the more we spend, the better.”
Being with family when one has changed and when one’s values/expectations about the holidays are now different, can be stressful. It’s easier sometimes to just go along with the way it’s always been than to rock the boat. This desire to belong or feel connected can be so strong that we overextend ourselves emotionally, physically and financially.
- Spending money to travel or buying gifts one cannot afford.
- Attending social/family functions because we “have to” or “should.”
- Preparing an elaborate, “perfect” meal or celebration.
Dealing With That Difficult Relative
Most families have one difficult relative. The expectation of being together during the holidays creates pressure to “put up” with someone you’d rather avoid. If you are comfortable with contacting that relative before the family gathering, do so.
Reaching out beforehand will help minimize the stress and awkwardness. But remember that just because you want to resolve an issue, the other person may not want to do the same. Be realistic.
How to Make a Positive Change
Consider these tips to have an enjoyable holiday season:
- Keep your expectations of yourself and others realistic.
- Prioritize what needs to be done and try to involve others with the preparation.
- Don’t worry about how things should be; instead, do what you can do and more importantly, what you want to do.
- Take control over the holidays and have self-compassion; take timeouts and accept your limitations. Notice when you’re feeling stress, and use this as an indicator that you need to remove yourself from the stressful situation to regroup.
- Use humor and limit your use of food and alcohol to cope with stress.
- Try to accept family members and friends as they are, even if they don’t live up to your expectations. It’s not a good idea to use the holidays to “confront.”
- Establish healthy boundaries for yourself. It’s okay to say “no.”
In a 12-step recovery program, there’s an acronym, HALT, which stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired. It indicates the risks for relapse. These feelings can apply to anyone at any time, but especially during the holidays. When you feel one of these, take time to stop, breathe, and take care of yourself.
The holidays are meant to bring people together. You can make the most of the holidays by expressing love, joy and appreciation for family.
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