*Breathes deeply, visualizes a breezy meadow, pounds wine*
If your holiday plans involve hanging with your family — and your family stresses you out beyond all reason — you may be currently stress-crying into your carry-on.
Totally understandable. Here are some helpful ways to get through it all unscathed…ish.
1. Be aware that the holiday season makes the emotional stakes feel crazy high.
Sure, we always want our family weekends to go smoothly. But around the holidays the increased social pressure to bond with loved ones and enjoy every minute of such a special time of year makes it especially challenging to deal with less-than-cozy family situations, Jonice Webb, Ph.D, licensed psychologist and author of Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect, tells BuzzFeed Life.
“We’re pushed into this feeling like ‘this should be wonderful, everything has be just right,’” says Webb, which makes the stakes feel higher than usual, which makes it more of a let down when there’s tension, fighting, or misunderstandings.
2. So adjust your expectations accordingly.
Just being aware of how the holidays can wreak havoc on your emotions will help you better prepare. You don’t want to be overly pessimistic going into it, but you do want to be realistic.
That thing your uncle does that makes you super angry? There’s no reason to think he won’t do it this year and that it won’t trigger you. That power struggle you and your brother seem to have every time you’re together? The fact that it’s Christmas won’t make it go away. Having realistic expectations will make it so much easier to deal with whatever goes down, licensed clinical psychologist Andrea Bonior, Ph.D., tells BuzzFeed Life.
3. Identify each and every thing that’s likely to trigger you.
It’s super useful to have the awareness that things might get dicey while spending the holidays with family. But it’s even better to know exactly which things are likely to trigger you, says Bonior. So instead of thinking of the entire holiday weekend like one big shitshow, Webb recommends taking some time to think about specific potential landmines so you won’t be caught off guard.
4. Then make a game plan for how you’ll handle each one.
Maybe you’ll decide that whenever you feel stifled at your parents’ house, you’ll go for a 10-minute walk. Or as soon as you sister picks a fight with you, you’ll take a deep breath and change the subject to something more positive. When in doubt, visualizing something soothing, going to the bathroom to wash your face, or excusing yourself to text a friend are all tiny, unobtrusive ways to recenter yourself, Bonior says.
5. Smile and nod.
Engaging in arguments and fighting back can feel satisfying for a hot second but most of the time it ends up draining you and making everything more tense than it was a second ago. It’s actually more empowering to take authority back by totally diffusing a situation, says Bonior. “Sometimes there is power in half-smiling, nodding, and changing the subject. Give yourself permission to do that,” she says.
6. Make sure you have an ally, even if that means bringing one with you.
Having a support person lined up is crucial, says Webb. This can be a sibling you pull into another room to be like, “Can you believe that just happened??!” Or it can be a friend or partner you bring along and can debrief with throughout your stay. The important thing, says Webb, is having someone who knows you well, who understands your family dynamic, and who you can check in with. (Or at least just roll your eyes with.)
7. Or have one on standby.
If there’s just no way you’ll be able to have a comrade actually present, Webb recommends having a friend on standby who will text with you when shit gets real.
8. Come up with a mantra that’s appropriate for your specific family situation.
Instead of using a generic saying to repeat to yourself, Webb recommends coming up with mantras that speak directly to your situation and what’s likely to go wrong. Keep them in mind, write them down, and look at them or think them often, especially when things start to heat up.
For example, if you’re dealing with a sibling rivalry, try “This is not a competition.” If being around your family makes you feel unloved, try “I am a lovable person.” If emotional neglect is a running theme, try “My parents can’t give me what they never got.” If you have to deal with a relative who’s mean or on the attack, “Who cares what [so-and-so] thinks?”
You can also try an all-purpose, but specific-to-family-drama mantra: “Today I’m giving my family the gift of tolerance.”
9. Pretend you’re an anthropologist.
Seriously. One way to get some distance from intense family shit, Bonior says, is to pretend that you’re doing an anthropological study on how this group of people celebrates the holidays, observing closely but keeping an emotional distance, so that whatever shenanigans erupt can’t get under your skin. It’s a light and playful way to take family stuff in stride.
10. Or pretend that you’re meeting these people for the first time.
It’s not so easy to decide that years of arguments, resentment, and other frustrations don’t exist, but if you can try to find a fresh start, you’re less likely to be one slight away from falling apart. Bonior suggests a thought experiment: Pretending that you have no history at all with your family; that this Thanksgiving dinner, Christmas Eve, etc. is your first time with this group. This will help you be a little more forgiving than usual (because you won’t be tallying something as the millionth time that thing has happened) which will make you more relaxed all around.
11. Don’t self-medicate with booze.
It’s not always easy to know where to draw the line with alcohol during the holidays; the fact that it’s a festive time of year makes you want to drink more than usual. The fact that shit might get super tense also makes you want to drink more than usual. As long as you’re not trying to stay sober, it’s not necessarily a bad thing that we tend to imbibe a little more during the holidays, says Webb.
When things could potentially become a shitshow, though, is when drinking is your coping mechanism, and the only tool in your arsenal. Feeling like you can’t deal without being buzzed or drunk puts you on a slippery slope of being convinced you can’t handle business sober, which makes you feel powerless, which makes you rely on drinking more and more, which can cause you to develop a dependence, says Webb. If you find that you’re drinking to the point of being badly hungover, embarrassing yourself, or losing self-control, it’s a sign that your drinking has gone too far.
12. Stay grounded by sticking to at least one part of your usual routine.
Part of what makes going home for the holidays difficult is that you’re cut off from your regular life, and instead are fully immersed in your family, your hometown, and the weird routine that becomes the norm only during the holidays. Webb says that doing at least one thing each day that you’d do normally at home is a great way to exercise some autonomy and feel connected to yourself. Whether it’s the run or walk you take every day, your morning ritual of going out for coffee and the paper, or chilling out to a podcast every afternoon, bring one of those activities with you to the holidays.
13. Really make sure that going home at all is good for you.
“I think a lot of people feel obligated to go [to family holiday gatherings]. It never occurs to them that they don’t have to,” says Webb. No one’s saying it would be easy or uncomplicated to not attend the family gathering, but for some people, that’s the smarter move. Webb says that if you tend to come away from every family gathering feeling way worse than you felt going into it, you may want to reconsider attending at all.
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14. Schedule post-holiday self-care.
If you already know that you’re likely to have a bit of an emotional hangover after spending time with your family, take some time now to figure out what you’re going to do after the holidays. For some people, it’ll be getting in plenty of alone time, and for others it’s connecting with friends who really get you, says Webb. Whichever one it is, commit now, and get it in the calendar. It’ll also give you something to seriously look forward to when things are getting a little extra.