The joys of the holiday season are all too often eclipsed by the stresses. Here are some ways to honor your own needs, especially with difficult family.
I’ve noticed a trend since starting my own counseling practice. I seem to get more clients around the holidays. Most of the time, clients are looking for help due to high levels of stress, feeling overwhelmed, and yes, difficult family members.
With Thanksgiving and Christmas only a month apart, the large amount of family togetherness can be challenging for some folks, particularly those with family members who seem to push all the buttons. How can we survive—and even enjoy—this time of year when we’re in closer quarters and more frequent contact with these challenging people?
First, in order to know how to care for ourselves and engage with our difficult family members in ways that are aligned with our values, it’s important to be mindful of what is happening in our bodies while we interact with these individuals.
Sometimes our bodies register emotions before our brains do. For example, if my relative starts speaking passionately in favor of an issue that I feel passionately against, my heart may start racing before I realize that the emotions I’m feeling are anger and indignation. If I notice my heart racing, I can become curious about what I’m actually feeling (in this case, anger and indignation), and I can decide how I want to respond.
Often when we feel threatened, we engage in fight, flight, or freeze responses, which may cause us to act in ways that we wouldn’t normally choose to act. For example, I could choose “fight” and yell at my relative that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I could choose “flight” and leave the room altogether, stewing in anger. Or I might freeze and feel completely powerless in the situation. While fight, flight, or freeze responses may have served me well in the past, they may not serve me as well in this situation. A big, ugly argument could ensue, I could miss out on spending time with other family members, or I could check out from the group for the rest of the evening. By being present to what is occurring inside, I can self-soothe by taking some deep breaths or grounding my feet into the floor, and then decide how and if I want to respond.
There are times, however, when taking breaks, advocating for one’s self, or telling a relative you don’t want to talk about a particular topic may be warranted. Again, it’s important to be mindful of what we’re experiencing so we have the most accurate information to respond in ways that are in accordance with our values.
Taking breaks from family members (especially if they’re staying in your home!) can be a helpful way to feel refreshed and restored, rather than grumpy and snappy. You can set boundaries by deciding when, how, and what (if any) controversial topics you’ll converse about.
Before going over to that difficult relative’s house for dinner, it might be helpful to consider who might initiate discussions about which topics, and how you might respond. For example, you could absolutely tell that relative of yours that you’d rather not discuss politics over eggnog. On the other hand, if you do enjoy talking politics, tread carefully, keeping in mind: 1) what emotions you’re experiencing during the conversation and where you’re experiencing them in your body; 2) that no matter how thoughtful and well researched your opinions may be, they are strictly your opinions and not the other person’s. Chances are high that you will not convince them otherwise, just as they will probably not convince you otherwise; and 3) when you’re nearing the Point of No Return—where you find yourself getting heated and about to say something that you know you’ll regret later on.
Remind yourself that you’re not responsible for changing their minds, accept the difference in opinion with this person, and move on to a new, safe topic.
As I write this, I feel my palms sweaty against my keyboard, as I’m running through the things to consider in the preceding paragraph. I find myself thinking, “Man, this can be stressful and so hard!”
Which brings me to my final point about surviving the holidays with difficult family members—the importance of taking care of yourself. Because, while it may be the Most Wonderful Time of the Year in some regards, it can most certainly be the busiest, craziest, most stressful, insert-other-adjective-here time of the year!
How can we care for ourselves during this crazy time of the year?
While it may be harder to maintain around the holidays, keeping up with a healthy diet, exercise, and sleep routine the best you can combats feelings of sluggishness and becoming easily irritated. Of course, remember to give yourself some grace if you find yourself eating more cookies, missing out on a weekly yoga class, or going to bed later than usual because of that holiday party.
Healthy eating, exercise, and sleep help you to feel good and maintain energy levels, but even if you can’t make it to your yoga class, doing something small like walking around the block can still be effective. Berating yourself for all of the treats you’ve consumed will only steal your joy and leave you feeling defeated. Punishing or beating yourself up mentally is never productive or kind.
Also, consider your commitments and what you’re saying “yes” to. It’s absolutely okay to say no to something if you know you will feel worse if you say yes or if you simply want a quiet night at home.
Try prioritizing quality time over the quantity of time you spend with your loved ones. For example, say you have plans for three of the four weekends in December, and you’re very much looking forward to the one weekend you don’t have plans. But then, you’re invited to do something with your mom’s third cousin twice removed on the one weekend you’re free. You could technically go, but you know how much you’ve needed a night in, and that if you go, you’ll be wishing you were at home. Chances are high that you’ll end up grumpy, tired, and resentful, and then no one is having fun. You may be spending time with your loved ones, but it’s not quality time…which I’m guessing is what your mom’s third cousin twice removed had in mind when they wanted to make plans in the first place!
While there are no magic buttons to push (wouldn’t that be awesome?!) to change our circumstances or our difficult family members, we do have the power to tune in to our own bodies and emotions, care for ourselves, and respond in ways that we won’t regret later. When we realize that we still have agency over our lives in the midst of the holiday rush, we can make choices that, instead of sucking our lives dry, increase our enjoyment of this beautiful time of the year!
About the Author
Julie Williamson is the Founder and Therapist at Abundant Life Counseling St. Louis LLC. She is a Licensed Professional Counselor, National Certified Counselor, and Registered Play Therapist. She enjoys working with women facing the challenges of anxiety, depression, and various relational issues, including developing healthy dating relationships. You can learn more about Julie at abundantlifecounselingstl.com