Learn new skills to make time with family enjoyable.
The holiday season is quickly approaching. For some, this time of year brings up memories of family fun, great food, joy, decorations, celebration and connecting with family. For others, it brings up memories of boundaries disrespected or being let down, put down, or underappreciated. For such people, the holiday season can feel stressful because they’re anticipating dealing with the same challenging family relationships they’ve always had to deal with, without having found a way to be with those family members and leave feeling good about the experience and themselves.
If you find family relationships to be difficult, that’s completely understandable, if not to be expected. Family relationships are usually the hardest relationships, not the lovefests Hallmark and Lifetime movies would have us believe. This is because:
A. Family members are not chosen,
B. The relationships span decades, during which time a lot of good and sometimes bad things happen,
C. We’re tasked to connect with people we often have little in common with, both in terms of interests, world views, and even lived experiences, and
D. There’s often a lack of boundaries, judgment, criticism, letdowns, and then struggles to discuss issues and work them out.
However, despite all the challenging aspects of familial relationships, people usually have a deep love for their families and a strong desire for those relationships to improve. While you’ll never be able to change your family, there’s certainly hope that through working on yourself, healing, and learning new ways to navigate challenging relationships, spending time with them can feel better. The key is to focus on what you can do differently when with family. The following list will give you strategies and tools to implement so you can have a better experience with your family this holiday season:
Have realistic expectations. It's common to have hope that, this year, spending time with family might be nice, as though a lot has changed from every other year. Such hope is not helpful. Instead, assume your family will be the same as they always are. This way you can strategize as to the best ways to take care of yourself and the best ways to respond to challenging moments. You have to plan for the challenges you'll likely experience, or you’ll respond the same way you always have. If you want things to be different this year, your power is in responding differently, which takes planning.
Set boundaries. Your boundaries are the way you can take care of yourself. You can set boundaries with family this holiday season by saying no to things that don't serve you or that take away from your mental health. You can put your needs above everyone else's, at least some of the time. You can also set boundaries by honoring your self-care needs, even if your family tries to get you to abandon yourself. For example, if you need to go home early to get a good night's sleep because that supports your wellness, you can leave even if your family tries to make you feel guilty. People can try to get you to bend your boundaries, but ultimately, you always get to choose whether you're willing to or not. No one can set boundaries for you, so it's important to learn how to set boundaries and how to maintain them with people who don't respect them.
Plan grounding techniques to use while with family. You’ll likely feel emotionally triggered while with your family. When you get triggered, you get dysregulated. That’s why it’s important to show up with plans for how you’ll try to regulate your nervous system if and when you feel triggered. You can go to the bathroom and run cold water on your hands (or splash it on your face). You can bring mints and suck on one when you notice yourself getting upset. You can say you need some air and take a walk outside. You can sit down and do deep breathing, and no one has to know. There are lots of ways you can ground yourself during family time. The key is to have a plan.
Have a support person. Plan to be in contact with someone who can support you or ask someone who will be there when you’re with your family. Lean on this person for support, whether through texting, a phone call, or in person if they’re there. Knowing you’re not alone and that you’re loved can make a huge difference when you’re with family and you’re not feeling seen or otherwise feeling hurt.
Show up feeling your best. Make sure you get a good night’s sleep. Hydrate the day before and the day of. Do a meditation before spending time with family so your baseline is calm and grounded. Do things that feel good before seeing your family as a way to support yourself when you get there.
Do all you can to make time with family this year feel different than it has in the past. Remember that whatever happens this year is information for what else you need to do differently going forward.
I’m wishing you a calm, joyful, and deeply connected holiday season!
This blog was originally published on Psychology Today.