Every Thanksgiving, every Christmas, every Hanukkah, and every New Year’s Day, smiling people sit surrounded by family, talking, watching football, or enjoying a big plate of holiday food.

But every Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, and New Year’s Day, a surprising number of those smiling people are hiding how they really feel inside.

Deeply uncomfortable.

And inexplicably, alone.

As a psychologist and expert in the field of Emotional Neglect, every year around this time, I begin to hear the stories from those who anticipate their families’ holiday parties with anxiety.

I always look forward to going to Thanksgiving, but then I end up disappointed.

I don’t feel like I can be myself when I’m with my family.

I’d rather not go to the holiday dinner, but I have to.

Many of these anxious, sad and disappointed folks have apparently loving families; some are even replete with material comforts.

I heard these concerns about the holidays so often that I became intensely curious. What percentage of people feel stressed or burdened about spending time with their families during the holidays? And why do they feel that way?

I wanted numbers, and I wanted data.

So I did what any curious psychologist might do. I commissioned a national poll.

This September (2017) I surveyed 1,000 random people about their family holiday experiences and feelings.

3 Important Findings of the Holiday Survey

  • More than 40% of people — that’s 4 in 10 — struggle during the holiday time they spend with family.
  • Much of this unhappiness is due to feeling pressured to act like everything is great, even when it isn’t.
  • Feeling pressure to act like everything is great is highest for younger adults, and slowly drops by more than half as we get older.

Did you ever suspect that almost half of people are secretly struggling at their family gathering? Are you wondering, as you read this, who amongst your own family may be? And most importantly, are you a silent sufferer yourself?

Feeling pressure to act like everything in your life is good, even when it’s not, is one of the clearest signs of emotional neglect in a family. Families that fail to ask you questions that matter with genuine interest; or those who ask, but convey through body language that the answer should be “everything is going great” are essentially squelching the emotions of it’s members.

In case you’re wondering if that’s really so bad, I want to tell you that it is. When your family squelches your emotions, they are squelching the most deeply personal, biological expression of who you are. And they are also sacrificing the most important opportunities to bond that a family can have: honest sharing of problems, heartfelt clearing of conflicts, and true exchanges of pain and joy, hurt and happiness, challenges, losses, struggles, failures and accomplishments.

The bottom line: In order to feel comfortable in your family, you must feel loved. In order to feel loved, you must feel known. And to feel known, your most deeply personal self (your emotions, including the negative ones) must be welcomed.

3 Ways to Reduce the 40% in Your Family This Holiday Season

  1. At your family gathering, make it a point to talk with someone about a problem in your life. Choose someone you wouldn’t normally share a problem with (make sure it’s someone who can be trusted with the information).
  2. Do you have a sister-in-law who seems sad lately? A nephew who may be struggling in college? A cousin who recently separated from his wife? Make it a point to connect with him or her in a real way. “I’ve been thinking about you. How are you doing? And I mean for real,” accompanied by eye-contact and true listening, can go a long way.
  3. Pay special attention to the young adults at your family party, since the poll shows that they feel the most pressure to be “great.” Share something real from your own life, or ask them the question above. Then listen.

If you have secretly worried that you’re the only person who feels unhappy about seeing your family; if you’ve felt guilty that you didn’t enjoy your family holiday time more; or if you’ve doubted yourself, and wondered if you are wrong to feel as you do, I want you to know three things. It’s not true; you shouldn’t; and you’re not.

A little honest asking and listening goes a long way. Emotional neglect in a family comes from it’s members’ childhoods, and is usually unintentional and invisible, and it can be gradually turned around.

Pay attention. Ask. Listen. Share.

If we all work together, we can reduce the 40%. Then every Thanksgiving, every Christmas, every Hanukkah, and every New Year’s Day, more smiling people will sit surrounded by family, feeling warm, accepted, understood.

And loved.

Childhood Emotional Neglect can be very subtle, and difficult to see in your own family. To find out if you grew up with CEN, Take The CEN Questionnaire. It’s free.

To learn how to deal with your emotionally neglectful family, see Running Empty No More: Transform Your Relationship With Your Partner, Your Parents, & Your Children.