The “most wonderful time of the year” isn’t always stress free. Many of us feel overwhelmed by extra activities in an already busy schedule, finishing up end of the year work tasks, and the financial strain of extra expenses. Add to that extended time with difficult family relationships and you have a recipe for a stress filled holiday. The good news is that there are some steps you can take to reduce the amount of stress and change the way you react to difficult family interactions.
Learn to say “No”. Often our automatic response to requests is “yes”, even when we would much rather say “no”. We might feel guilty or obligated or worry that no one else will take on the task if we don’t. Sometimes the request is put forth more as a demand which means our “no” will feel more confrontational. Other times, the request appears manipulative in what feels like an attempt to guilt us into saying “yes”. If you find yourself automatically saying yes to things, practice responding by saying that you will consider it and get back to them with an answer. This gives you time to look at your schedule and determine if this is something that you want to invest your time in. During the holidays, there are many opportunities and requests sent our way. Be proactive in scheduling the downtime that you need before taking on extra obligations. Be like Marie Kondo in those extra activities – if it doesn’t spark joy, say no.
Set boundaries and enforce them. Boundaries are what separates us from others. Your physical boundaries involve your personal space, your body, and your privacy. Material boundaries involve what you do with your personal belongings, finances, and home. Mental and Spiritual boundaries refer to your thoughts, beliefs, faith, and opinions. Emotional boundaries refer to your ownership and responsibility for your emotions. These are probably the trickiest boundaries to navigate and they easily bleed into the other boundary areas. Many of us may have been taught to take responsibility for the emotions of those around us. If you grew up in a family with blurred boundaries, you may have learned to feel guilty for others negative emotions, walking on eggshells, compromising your physical, mental, material, and emotional boundaries to maintain peace. During the holidays, we are likely spending more time with individuals with whom we have long established unhealthy patterns regarding boundaries. Take some time now and write down for yourself some boundaries in each of the 4 areas described above. Understand that boundaries are a working document. We have the right to change our minds as we gain new information. If you are new to setting boundaries with your family, be prepared that it may cause discomfort. The truth is that setting boundaries will necessarily make others uncomfortable because it means that they must change something they are doing.
Stay away from alcohol while spending time with those individuals with whom you feel irritated or unsafe. We may be tempted to use alcohol to cope with the tension that we feel but it lowers our inhibitions and we too often say or do things that we regret later. In order to maintain those boundaries that you set for yourself and be in tune with your emotions, you need to be fully aware.
Accept your family for who they are right now. We may wish that we could change them, and honestly, they may wish they could change us. When we don’t see our families very often, we also will find ourselves expecting them to be who they were many years ago. Try to see them for who they are now. If you know that you both disagree vehemently about politics or religion, accept that you can’t change their minds and choose to talk with them about something else. Accepting your family for who they are doesn’t mean that you are condoning or accepting abusive or passive aggressive behaviors. It means that you make a conscious decision not to expect something different. This actually frees you to be able to set boundaries for yourself that create emotional and physical safety. It may even mean that you make a decision to limit the time you spend with them, limit where you spend that time, or even make a decision to spend time with a supportive group of friends instead.
Have a support system in place. If time spent with family causes emotional distress for you, make sure you have someone to reach out to. If you have an ally in your family, create an S.O.S. plan with each other. If not, create a plan with a friend who you can call if things become overwhelming. You can text them a simple “help” when you need to get out of a situation. I also highly recommend sandwiching your family visit with therapy appointments. Meet before your visit to create a plan and meet after to process through the emotions that came up.
The holidays can be a tricky time when it comes to families but with these steps in place you will have a better chance of experiencing the peace and joy of this season of the year.
Hannah Lindsay, MSW, LCSW-C provides individual and family therapy in our Sterling, VA office. Call or email today to schedule your first appointment or a complimentary telephone consultation with Hannah.