“If you think you’re enlightened, go spend a week with your family.” – RAM DASS
Let’s be honest: Holidays with our families of origin can be both wonderful and extremely challenging. They can be a time of connection, joy, gratitude, and celebration. They can also be stressful and unearth old dynamics or difficult conversations we would rather not have. The clichés of fighting with relatives at the Thanksgiving table about politics or our life decisions can be very real, and they are clichés for a reason. We may, at times, even feel like we are 13 years old again.
Here are a five ways to deal with upcoming holiday stress, if that’s something you may be facing:
- Limit your window of time– Limiting the amount of time we are around our families gives us a clear time boundary. There is a definitive finish line. This helps our brain understand that the stress we feel has an end point. I find, for many people, 72 hours is a good “sweet spot” to both reconnect and not feel overwhelmed. Your family dynamics will be personal for you. So, find your own “sweet spot” and know your window of tolerance if possible.
- Make a plan for conversational landmines – If you know what topics tend to be hot button issues for your family, make a plan to navigate those. These proverbial “landmines” exist in most families, and we tend to know what they are. Understand that if these arise, it is okay to change the subject or take a time out from your family. It’s okay to have your views while your family members have theirs, even when it feels very emotionally charged. “This is a complicated issue, and our relationship is more important to me than being right” is a helpful phrase. Often, the relationship is more valuable to us than whatever debate or conflict we may have.
- Carve out some self-care time (if possible) – It’s okay to get a break from your family even if only for a short window. Is there an old friend you’d like to see who is also in town? An old place you want to drive to for nostalgia purposes? Do you want to see your cousin who refuses to come to Thanksgiving dinner? Make time to do that. As I said above, carving out a few moments to recharge your batteries can enable you to be present for the short time you have with them.
- Have a partner help out – If you are going home to your family, and your partner is accompanying you, this can be very helpful. If they are willing, your partner can serve as a good excuse to give you some space. They can help intervene when they see you struggling with a conversation and take some of the weight off your shoulders. I find it helps to have a signal/phrase that you both know so that your partner understands it would be helpful if they stepped in.
- It’s okay to have your boundaries– We all have our limits. Sometimes enough is enough. That’s okay. You are in the driver’s seat and get to determine when someone has crossed a line or you disagree, based on your values and beliefs. If you have decided to speak up, you have the right to do that.
The holidays can be very stressful. With proper planning, support, and self-awareness, we can reduce the stress and maximize the time we are truly connecting with our loved ones. In the end, that’s what it’s all about.
Matt Bynum, MA, LPC
Matt is a therapist who lives in Boulder, Colorado. He offers services at Strength in Motion. He works with many individuals navigating difficult familial challenges, both during and outside of the holidays.