Yes, they’re coming… Not the zombies but the holidays; the Christmas cards are out, right next to the Halloween candy, and it’s only a matter of time until there’s no place to hide from the tinny, canned holiday music. Let the countdown begin: 24 days until Thanksgiving and 57 until Christmas. If this fills you with dread instead of joyful anticipation, there are ways to prepare yourself so that the holiday season doesn’t become an inevitable calamity.
This is a tough season for many people whose family ties are either frayed and painful or non-existent.
Culturally, we’re virtually under assault with images of family harmony everywhere, a kind of togetherness that’s either eluded us all of our lives or has special poignancy now.
At the same time, many of us still hope for some kind of miracle—that our mother will become the parent we’ve always longed for, that our father won’t criticize our life choices, that our siblings will embrace us, that the get-together will look like a Norman Rockwell painting instead of a horrible ping-pong game of subtle put-downs and snide remarks.
If we are estranged from our family of origin, we may feel ashamed and isolated even though we fully understand why we’ve chosen as we have.
But there’s much we can do to prepare ourselves proactively and take command of this stretch of time instead of feeling victimized by it. Following are some strategies you can start executing now.
1. Set your own expectations for the season
Our need to be normal and like everyone else—those people who have families where there’s laughter and love mainly, and the fights are about who gets the drumstick or wishbone—can sometimes make us indulge in magical thinking this time of year. Instead, set reasonable expectations, especially if you’re going to a family gathering. Wrestle your feelings about your family to the ground before you meet up; that’s a good way to deactivate potential triggers ahead of time. Journaling can certainly help.
2. Set boundaries and stick by them
You’re not an elevator and no one can push your buttons unless you allow them to.
Remember that you’re not required to engage with anyone who’s being nasty or abusive. If the last holiday gathering was a free-for-all of insults, talk to your parents ahead of time and tell them why this isn’t acceptable to you. If the host or hostess isn’t willing to enforce rules of civility, you should consider not going.
If you do go, keep those boundaries in mind. You don’t have to be rude or unpleasant but, again, no one gets a free pass on hurtful words or behavior.
If you won’t be joining your family of origin, remember that you’re not required to answer questions about why posed by acquaintances or colleagues. It’s your choice whether or not to talk about family factiousness with other people. Estrangement is far more common than our culture admits; don’t let yourself be shamed by something you never had any control over.
3. Write your own script
Yes, you can make these holidays your holidays. You don’t have to fall into old patterns of trying to please other people or keep the peace; you are allowed to make your own choices. Yes, it’s hard bucking cultural expectations but if you believe that the holidays and the people you love will be better served by skipping the drama, then skip it. Create the holidays as you wish them to be.
4. Make room for savoring
Keep in mind that joy can be found in unexpected places; despite the commercialism of the culture, there’s nothing lovelier than the gift of doing something for another person.
No, you can’t put it in a box or wrap it but it will be mightily appreciated. Don’t forget to put yourself on your gift list too; again, this need not be a purchase but can be the gift of something you’ve always wanted to do but haven’t.
You know how children eat something they love with deliberation? How they pull apart the cookie with the cream in the middle and eat the outsides first, saving the creamy best for last? That’s savoring, and you should look at the holidays in the same spirit. Find the creamy center and enjoy it!
Photograph by kira-auf-der-heide. Copyright free. Unsplash.c