Every year, I hear from readers who ask plaintively, “Can the holidays be put on speed dial? I’d like to go to sleep the night before Thanksgiving and wake up January 2nd?” People with happy families find the holidays stressful—too much to do and too little time to do it in—but it’s a whole other story when you feel you need a coat of armor to gather around the turkey or reach for those gifts under the tree. But there are ways you can prepare to deal with whatever stress presents itself and get through the season in one piece.
- Prepare yourself for predictable scripts
You can stop yourself from over-reacting in the moment by thinking about how members of your family usually act at these occasions and mentally preparing yourself. Remember that you’re not an elevator and no one can push your buttons unless you let them. So, if your mother is bound to get under your skin by flattering your sister and putting you down, decide ahead of time how you’re going to deal with that. Sometimes, spontaneity isn’t helpful so decide ahead of time how you’re going to behave. The only behavior you can control is your own, after all.
- Be conscious and aware of your own expectations
We are all bombarded with positive images of loving families for weeks preceding the holidays and no matter how difficult our family is in real life, most of us hope for a miracle or transformation, only to be sadly disappointed. Setting your expectations realistically will help you from getting angry or hurt when one of the predictable scripts takes over and you feel like an invader in hostile territory. Set boundaries ahead, deciding what kind of treatment you will push against and which you won’t. Remember that while no one appointed you the peacemaker, your job isn’t to play tit for tat either.
- Don’t let the exchange of gifts get to you
Alas, in fractious families, gifts (and their value) often become symbolic counters; parental favoritism can be expressed through what’s given and a gift can become a way of putting someone down or criticizing them without ever opening your mouth. One reader shared her story with me a few years ago:
“My mother has never been diplomatic about how she hates how I dress and so every Christmas, I get something she deems appropriate which she also knows I will never wear. This is a weird game of cat-and-mouse that she clearly likes playing because, every year, the gift receipt is somehow missing so I can’t return whatever lacey pink thing she’s bought me. It goes straight from her house to Goodwill every year.”
More painful is the luxe gift bestowed on the worthy offspring and something decidedly lesser or perhaps recycled for the one considered not. Let it go unless is being done to children in the family because, sometimes, favoritism hits a second generation; this is not okay to do with kids.
- Remember that it’s okay to say no, politely
If you’re not comfortable with an aspect of what’s being planned, say so ahead of time instead of arriving irritated and put-out. It’s also okay to excuse yourself if someone is trying to bait you into an argument; just be calm enough to hold onto your manners. Again, anticipating those predictable family scripts will help you manage your emotions better and allow yourself not to rise to the bait. Even if your parents are hosting, do keep in mind that you’re an adult and you have every right to set parameters and boundaries.
- Use self-calming techniques to destress
One way of assuring that you won’t be triggered is to prepare yourself for managing your emotions. If running is your thing or working out relaxes you, make time in your schedule for those activities. Visualizing a calming place or person can also help you to tame your emotions, especially if you’ve allowed yourself to get agitated by a familiar script.
- Address your old wounds before the meet-up
Sometimes, being with your family of origin can feel more like an echo chamber than not and bring up old hurts and pains. You have presumably chosen to continue contact with your family despite the history and it’s a good idea to review the reasons why you are going. As I explain in detail in my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life, understanding the effect your family had on you puts you in position of authority; self-realization is key not just to healing but managing your emotions. The best way of dismantling triggers is to identify them.
- Keep in mind that social media is highly curated
If the season is getting to you, why don’t you take a break from Facebook and Instagram? If you’re feeling kind of meh about the season, it certainly won’t make you feel better seeing all your “friends” having a grand old time, showing off their fab presents, and photo after photo of smiling people all related by blood or marriage.
And have some fun. Do some nice things for you and those people you’ve chosen to be a part of your life. That’s one of the good things about graduating out of your childhood room—you can make your own family!
Photograph by Craig Whitehead. Copyright free. Unsplash.com