How to Make Going Home for the Holidays More Tolerable

Home for the holidaysHolidays with our loved ones do not always conjure joyous feelings. Many of us experience anxiety and even dread when we think about visiting our families. We worry about falling into old patterns of behavior, regressing into less mature versions of ourselves when confronted with bombastic older brothers, overbearing grandmothers, or inappropriate uncles. We spend a large part of our adult lives healing from past uncomfortable and sometimes painful relational experiences, only to be thrust back into them under the pretense of togetherness and goodwill.

Bright lights, lavish gifts, and sumptuous meals falter under the heavy weight of the energy it takes to manage competing personalities and outdated family dynamics. We survive the festivities rather than enjoy them. Yet, we persevere year after year, because the spirit of love, faith, and gratitude seems worth the struggle.

If we are going to make the effort, then perhaps we can learn to cope with these stressful encounters without draining our emotional reserves. Moving through the holiday season with a greater sense of peace requires a little mindfulness regarding your reactions to challenging family members.

Identify the Source of Your Discomfort

Is there a particular family member you worry about seeing? Why? How has this person made you feel in the past? Does your intuition tell you to move toward or away from this person?

Imagine How You Would Like the Encounter to Go

Do you wish you could be closer to this person? Do you feel the need to protect yourself from this person? How would you like to be able to respond to this person?

Once you understand your needs in relation to this family member, you can begin to create a strategy to navigate your interactions with increased confidence and composure.

Accept Reality

Become aware of who this person is in reality, not just in your mind. Our assumptions and images of difficult family members are often inaccurate, as they are usually based on the memories of children trying to make sense of incomprehensible situations. Indeed, our childhood rationalizations can even keep us involved in relationships with those who have abused us. In lesser circumstances, our ideas of how relationships look may be based on how they have always been and limit any possibility for growth.

To accept family members for who they are, start by determining when and how their distressing behaviors manifest. Think back to interactions with your family members. Without judgment, observe their behavior. Notice how they communicate and connect with others. Become aware of their capacity for empathy, their tolerance for conflict, and how they present themselves to others. Consider how their age, culture, or background may influence how they relate to you and others in the family.

What conclusions can you draw from your observations? Is it possible that the cousin who seems so uncaring and aloof is really anxious in large gatherings? Or perhaps your overly critical aunt criticizes only when she feels insecure around her highly successful sister?

Remind yourself that their behavior is not directly related to you and that a specific set of life experiences led them to be who they are today. You don’t have to take others’ choices personally.

Create Reasonable Expectations

Consider your own personal expectations of others’ behavior. Are you expecting behavior that they are willing and able to offer? Or are you placing conditions on them that they may not be able to meet, and therefore creating frustration within yourself? Are you willing to relate to them differently? If you are, consider offering compassion to the family members who struggle to connect and create new ways to engage with them. If you are not, remember not to personalize their behavior to keep from reacting to or escalating uncomfortable situations.

Be aware of circumstances where you might be vulnerable and consider ways to create protective boundaries. You might avoid being alone with someone who antagonizes you. You could identify a trusted friend or family member who can serve as a buffer against harm. Be thoughtful about your alcohol intake, as it can impact your perceptions and ability to respond appropriately to others. Notice how alcohol affects those around you, as it can amplify unsafe situations.

As you create new ways of interacting, remember that old family patterns might prevail, resisting the change you envision. Your efforts to cultivate new and healthier relationships may not be reciprocated. Again, don’t take this personally. Instead, offer yourself compassion for your positive intentions and continue to accept the reality of your family member. You might even consider who can support you in the event the encounter does not go the way you hope.

Taking the time to understand your needs this holiday season will allow you to negotiate your family relationships with an increased sense of safety and self-control. That way you can focus your energy where it belongs—on celebrating with your loved ones.

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Shameela Keshavjee, MS, LMFT-S, therapist in Southlake, Texas

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 9 comments
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  • James

    James

    December 25th, 2014 at 4:08 AM

    Why even go if there is sooo much animosity and bad feeling out there?
    I would rather stay home by myself than endure bad childhood memories all over again!

  • Pilar

    Pilar

    December 25th, 2014 at 8:43 AM

    Sometimes the best thing is to face facts that we are not always going to get along with everyone in our family and that there is usually a good reason for that. You don’t have to be besties with them all but there will be a few hours here and there that you may have to tolerate them.
    Embrace the fact that this only happens once pr twice a year, take a deep breath and allow the holidays to commence.

  • Zoe

    Zoe

    December 25th, 2014 at 11:25 AM

    I find that I am usually the most disappointed when I think that someone will have changed from one year to the next… and then nope, same person that they have always been, same disappointment for me all over again.

    I have no one to blame but myself, because people continually show us who they are, and if we refuse to see that, then whose fault is that really?

  • lazydaisy

    lazydaisy

    December 26th, 2014 at 7:08 AM

    This was the first year in a long time that I did not spend with my extended family. I just didn’t feel like I had the money to spend on flying home and taking the time off of work that I would need to to make it happen. So I stayed home by myself and we had a kind of “orphan” get together with some friends who also have no family in the area. I think that we all had such a great time because we didn’t have that much to worry about other than spending it with people that we actually enjoy being with. It might become our new tradition for the holiday season!

  • Shameela Keshavjee, MS, LMFT-S

    Shameela Keshavjee, MS, LMFT-S

    December 26th, 2014 at 9:40 AM

    Each of you is touching on a very important issue – that we each have a choice how we spend our holiday season. Whether we are with our families, our friends, or even by ourselves, we get to make conscious decisions about what will be best for us. Sometimes it’s as simple as managing our expectations of others; other times, we need to make an effort to do something entirely different, like creating new traditions. As long as we’re being mindful of what we need, we won’t be at the mercy of our reactions to others.

    Happy New Year!

  • jeanine

    jeanine

    December 27th, 2014 at 9:56 AM

    I guess I am so lucky because going home for the holidays is actually one of the things that I look forward to all year! We all live so spread out and far away form one another that it is always nice to converge on our home that we grew up in and relive so many of the old memories. I love it.

  • Sylvie

    Sylvie

    December 28th, 2014 at 8:23 AM

    I think that over the years I have made some very unfair assumptions about so many of my family members that it has held me back from ever truly enjoying the time that I have been given with them as an adult. I think that I continue to think about many of them in the way that I viewed them as a teen and not as I should have been evolving to think of them as an adult. I worry that I don’t have the time left with them that I should so I now try to make the most of every nit of time that we are all allowed and fortunate enough to have together.

  • Heath

    Heath

    December 29th, 2014 at 4:16 AM

    You should go into the visit with absolutely no expectations of how things will be.
    I think that if you set up this scenario in your head of how you want things to go you will be disappointed no matter what happens after that.
    Just go into it with the expectation that you are probably going to see family that you have not had the chance to be around for a long time and try to take something valuable away from that.

  • marie g.

    marie g.

    December 30th, 2014 at 4:17 AM

    Over the years I have had my own ups and downs with my family members, but I have, as I have gotten older, started to appreciate the time that we get to spend together. Now with that being said, none of us live too far away from one another so we never have to go and stay. We can all get there with relatively little travel, so maybe that makes a difference for me. But we are all starting to get closer now than we once were and that security of having family and knowing that they are there for me? There is nothing right now that could replace the comfort that I get from that.

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