A Holiday Survival Guide, Part Two: Family

By Elisabeth Flannagan, MS Ed., LAC

You’re not alone if you feel under-enthusiastic about partaking in holiday cheer. Between the gaudy decorations, the same three Christmas songs on repeat, and the obnoxiously happy people flitting around, it’s no surprise that there’s spike in mental health issues around the holidays. This is a two-part survival guide to help with navigating holiday stress. The first article is about getting through the work week. This article is focused on situations that may happen at home or with family.

It’s okay to keep your distance

Everyone has that one nosy relative who always wants to know why you still aren’t married/don’t have kids/haven’t bought a house. Or maybe your mom can’t resist telling embarrassing stories to your significant other about how you peed yourself at school that one year. Maybe there’s a cousin who makes “joking” comments about your weight every time he sees you. Many people have at least one family member who grates at their soul and pushes their boundaries.

If you’re around people who frustrate or upset you, remember that, while you can’t control their behavior, you can control your reactions. It is completely within your right to ask a prying relative—in so many respectful but firm words—to back off.

Try these phrases:

  • “This isn’t a topic I feel comfortable talking about. Could we please change the subject?”
  • “I’m really not interested in discussing this.”
  • “When this was brought up last year it made me feel uncomfortable. I don’t want to talk about it again.”
  • “I asked if we could stop talking about this and I don’t feel that that’s been respected, so I’m going to step away from this conversation.”

Aim for a tone that is calm and polite, but firm. It’s healthy to be assertive.

Remember to reality check

Check your expectations:
What are your expectations with your family this year? Are you hoping this might be the one year everyone actually gets along and sings kumbaya around the Christmas tree? Because you will probably be disappointed. Or conversely, maybe you’re thinking this will be the year your relatives finally lose it and try to kill each other? Because you will probably be walking into the situation with a preconceived judgment that clouds your perception. Realistically, neither situation is guaranteed, and holding expectations on either end of the spectrum will only result in distress or frustration.

Sometimes people feel a strong obligation to “fix” their family, and put tremendous effort into trying to create the Most Perfect Holiday Ever™. Events are usually much more enjoyable when you let go and roll with the punches. If that type of anxiety is a feeling you struggle with, try playing the card game Fluxx — seriously, it emphasizes tolerance for rapidly changing circumstances (and it’s super fun).

Check your comparisons:
So you’re scrolling down Facebook and you see pictures of an old college friend cozied up with his beautiful smiling family, all in matching sweaters, their skin glowing from the light of the ornate and expensive-looking Christmas tree in the background. And maybe part of you feels a little dead inside because no one in your family can even be around each other long enough to take a picture. Stop that.

The holidays can be difficult because the idea of *happy-lovey family-time* is shoved in everyone’s face, but “family” can represent a lot of different things to different people. Each family is unique, and none are perfect. Comparing doesn’t make sense because there is no one-size-fits-all.

Check your thoughts:
“Christmas is completely ruined.” “We never agree on anything.” “I’m always miserable when the holidays roll around.” These are examples of black-and-white thinking — blanket statements about overarching situations. It’s a [cognitive] trap! These kinds of thoughts usually aren’t true and can be really destructive. Try to challenge them as they arise, e.g., “Is the day completely ruined? Or can I find even a small trace of positivity in this experience?”

Avoid overload

Spread out responsibility for holiday tasks, delegate, and manage your time. Don’t sign up to get the Christmas tree, decorate the entire house, and then make an entire five-course meal. Ask other people to help out with cooking, present-wrapping, etc. Take the time to make a to-do list and prioritize so you can focus on the most important stuff first.

Stay away from large crowds (that’s we we have online shopping!).

Secret Santas can be a time and money saver. If you find yourself buying presents for every single one of your 16 cousins, see if your family would be open to a gift exchange.

Get in the mindset

Watch holiday movies that don’t suck (Die Hard ftw).

Show gratitude. It can be one of the best ways to counteract self-destructive thoughts and feelings of loneliness. Take some time to reflect on the things and people you are grateful for.
Let go of the impulse to correct others, be right, and respond defensively. Some family members may have a perception of you that is incorrect, which can be frustrating, but in all likelihood trying to prove them otherwise isn’t worth the stress.

Examine and challenge your own attitude. Being cynical around the holidays is easy, and often understandable, but how much of your holiday experience is negative because of your own perspective versus the actual events?

Remember, others might also dislike the holiday season. You’re not alone! It’s not written in stone that you have to enjoy everything about them. Maybe tolerating them is your goal. Maybe finding something to enjoy about them is your goal. In any case, you can get through it. You’ve done it before, and you can do it again!

Elisabeth Flannagan, MS Ed., LAC, could probably be described as an introvert with social skills. She’s the clinical supervisor of a school psychotherapy program and practices outpatient therapy on the side. She’s a little obsessed with Zelda and Reddit, and spent a year and a half playing Pathfinder as a neutral-evil elf with a dark past. Elisabeth is an Enforcer at PAX conventions and has proudly volunteered as a clinician with TakeThis since 2014.