I t’s that time of year again. Pack up your patio furniture and pool toys and make room for turkeys and tinsel, cranberries and candy canes. For many of us this is a joyous time of year where we gather with loved ones around tables, trees, pianos and fireplaces to feast, unwrap, sing and celebrate. For others of us, gathering with loved ones is highly stressful and emotionally and mentally draining. For those in the second category, I thought I'd put together a little holiday gift – an Emotional First Aid Kit to help better navigate the season that sends far too many of us flying over the cuckoo's nest.
- Let Go of Your Expectations
Let go of your expectations. We all have very specific ideas of how holidays are supposed to "look." We kill ourselves in an attempt to create the perfect Martha Stewart/Target-commercial holiday. We are desperate to match or outdo a holiday we once had or a holiday someone else once had. We buy into the onslaught of advertisements that show us exactly what our holiday meals, homes and outfits should look like and we become stressed out, angry and even depressed when it falls short of those expectations. We bend over backwards to make things wonderful and perfect for our children, significant others, friends and family members and then get crushed when they don't respond the way we want them to. When we have challenging family dynamics it's easy to go overboard in our attempts to please and fix – thinking that if we can create the perfect looking holiday and do everything just right, things will finally be different – which really doesn't work and ends up making us feel worse.
Jump in and relish your traditions. Drag out, set out, put up, light up, wrap, cook and bake to your hearts content. If you know that there is a dish, gift or tradition that will make you or someone else happy then by all means do it. Do everything that you want to do to the best of your abilities and then let it go. Let go of needing it to be perfect. Let go of how it's supposed to look. And let go of how it's supposed to be received and experienced by others. It just might end up being better than you had previously imagined. At the very least, you will give the gift of a far happier and less stressful holiday to yourself.
- Take Care of Yourself
Holidays are a time of celebration and excess – that’s one of the very best things about them. It’s a chance to let loose, unwind and forget the stress of our daily lives. We eat and drink ourselves into massive caloric comas, stay up late and lie around watching parades, football games and our favorite holiday movies. What could be better?
It's important to remember, however, how those things make us feel. How we treat our bodies directly effects how we feel mentally and emotionally. Sugar and alcohol can tweak us out. Lack of sleep can make us grumpy and irritable. Holidays are stressful enough, especially for those who have family systems that turn into land mines around this time of year. Eat, drink and be merry but if family visits around the holidays last more than a day or two, make sure you get sleep, go for a run, take a walk, get fresh air, drink plenty of water, eat a salad (or at least a celery stalk) between enormous plates overflowing with gravy, rolls, pies and cookies. Remembering, as much as possible, to incorporate structure and routines from your everyday life – like exercise or meditation – can go a long way in relieving stress and keeping an even emotional keel as you navigate the holidays.
- Do Something Just For You
Buy and wrap yourself a gift (or a bunch of gifts, one for every day you're with your family) to open when you feel like you need a time out. Jump in your car, hide away in a bedroom, lock yourself in the bathroom if you need to, and take a moment for yourself. Treat yourself to something special. If you're able, book a massage or pedicure. Don't tell anyone where you're going, just run out for a couple hours of "errands" or "shopping" and spoil yourself. Consider it a reward for surviving your family so far and a wise investment in the rest of your holiday.
- Don't Forget Your Sense of Humor
One of the most important things you can pack as you head home for the holidays (or keep in your pocket if you are hosting) is your sense of humor. Laughter really is the best medicine, especially if you are dealing with a loopy family. When things start getting stressful, when that person starts doing and saying what they always do and say that usually causes you pain or makes you feel crazy, when you feel the beginnings of that familiar spiral… Stop. Take a breath. Grab an imaginary (or real) cocktail and bag of popcorn, sit back and just enjoy the show.
Make a decision to observe rather than participate. Look at whatever is going on in front of you as you would a television sitcom complete with laugh tracks and silly music. Turn your family members into overblown cartoon-like caricatures of themselves. Take some time before the family has even gotten together and think about the qualities of each person that you have a hard time with. Turn them into a cartoon and blow those troublesome personality traits completely out of proportion. Ask any stand up comedian out there – family is a gold mine of hilarious material. Sit back and enjoy. Your family may just give you the best side-splitting show you've ever had the pleasure of attending.
- Remember Who You Are
One of the hardest things about being with family, is how easy it is to slip back into old roles and completely lose touch with the person you are now. Make a simple scrapbook of photos, postcards, ticket stubs, a menu from your favorite restaurant… anything that will help you maintain a strong sense of self – of the person you are now. If you don’t have the time or desire to actually put them in a book, throw them in en envelope that you go through as many times a day as needed. Ask friends to write you notes of encouragement with private jokes and other reminders of the person you are today. Your family may not know or understand who you are now but you do, and having a physical reminder of that will help you stay grounded and sane rather than have you joining the ten lords a leaping off the nearest bridge.
- Remember You're Not Alone
The holidays can be a painfully lonely time for many, many people especially when there are challenging family dynamics to deal with. Sometimes being surrounded by the people who are “supposed” to know you and love you the most but, for whatever reason, don’t can feel more lonely than if you were by yourself. Please remember that you are not alone. There are millions of people that struggle with difficult and painful family issues during the holidays.
When things get especially challenging, take a time out, close your eyes and take a little mind trip with others that are feeling the same way. Take a moment to connect yourself to the faceless strangers that are in your same boat – a boat that, by the way, is not a rusty little paddle boat for one but a cruise liner filled with people that know exactly how you feel. Give champagne toasts, high fives and an encouragement. Acknowledge their feelings and allow them to acknowledge yours. I know a simple exercise like this can sound totally ridiculous, but think of it this way – ridiculous mind games are most likely causing your loneliness and pain so why not allow a ridiculous mind game to make them just a little bit better?
- Have a Holiday Buddy
Choose a friend that is willing to be “On Call” for you if things start to become difficult. Better yet, check in with them once a day to touch base, vent, complain, process or get a reality check before things start to spin out of control. Don’t forget #4. Fire up your sense of humor, get on the phone with your friend, give them your best "Guess what they did this time?" routine and laugh it off. Chances are you have a friend who also has to juggle their own family weirdness and you can provide enormous support for one another.
- Protect Yourself
It is important that you do everything you can to protect yourself. Create a bubble for yourself while with your family. Don't take the bait, don't triangulate, don’t get sucked in and don’t get involved in other people’s drama. Just sit back and observe. Set boundaries for yourself and stick to them. If someone asks for your help or opinion, determine first if it would be a healthy and productive thing for you to do. Remember Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby? The more he hit, kicked and wrestled with the tar baby, the more stuck, smothered and incapacitated he became. If you can’t get involved without staying detached or getting sucked in and sucked dry, then don’t.
We've all heard this definition of crazy: Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Stop expecting things to be different. Stop expecting people to be different. If they do happen to behave differently then great, Merry Christmas to you. But don't expect it. Stop being surprised that family members haven't stopped being who they've always been and still behave the way they've always behaved. You are the one who has changed and your newer, stronger, healthier self deserves to be honored and protected.
- Take A Break From "Issues"
Holidays are a time for celebration not confrontation, partying not processing. Because it might be the only time all year that everyone is actually together in the same room, far too many people choose the holidays as a time to drop bombs on often unsuspecting family members. Thanksgiving is not the day to tell your super religious family that you're gay. Christmas is not an appropriate time for telling your kids that you're getting divorced. Don't tell your husband you're leaving him for his best friend on New Years Eve. The holiday won't soften the blow, the blow will forever change how that holiday is experienced or remembered. I know it might be inconvenient to wait until a later time, but do it anyway. Chances are, down the road, you will regret waiting for a much more appropriate time far less than you will regret becoming a holiday terrorist.
Taking a break from processing, analyzing and confronting may end up being the best gift you can give yourself this season. Allow the holidays to be exactly what they should be – the happiest time possible for all involved.
If you can't do that then maybe it would be best that you…
10. Don’t Go
If it is emotionally, mentally or physically unwise for you to spend time with your family, then don’t do it. If there is abuse that occurs in your family, or has occurred and has not been resolved and worked through, then stay away. If you are working towards being a happy, healthy person and being around your family causes you to backslide into feelings of despair, depression or suicidal and/or addictive, self destructive behaviors then do not spend the holidays with them. There is nothing wrong with saying no and making the choice to protect yourself. If you have children, then it may not be the best thing for them to be with your family either – that is completely up to you. You taking a stand and saying no just might set your children, or other members of your family, free to start making healthier and safer choices for themselves too. If it is what you need to be happy and healthy then stay home, say no, make other plans and start different traditions.
YOU need to be your top priority and first responsibility. You owe it to yourself to be your own Santa. This year, make out your own list, check it twice and don't give a flying fig about whether you've been naughty or nice. Let it go, take care, eat it up, laugh it off, stay grounded, reach out, bubble up, take a break, say no and give yourself the happiest holiday season you've had in a very, very long time.