Navigating the Emotional Minefield That Is the Holidays

illustration by shore creative

By contributor Caylin Harris
If only the holidays were all twinkle lights, presents, and merriment. But alas, we’re no longer five years old and things have gotten…decidedly more complicated. Let’s be honest, family relationships can be challenging. Unless your family has zero drama and celebrates the holidays in a Norman Rockwellian fashion—in which case this article might not be for you. But think about it, we all have something we’re dealing with. Maybe it’s differing political beliefs or a recent loss or divorce or estrangement. The list can go on and on, but the point is that it’s normal to not feel one hundred percent happy at the holidays. So grant yourself some grace this season and feel free to employ these helpful tips about how to work through (and dare we say enjoy) the holidays on your own terms from Kristeen Rocha, LICSW and cofounder of the New England Wellness Collaborative.

Navigating complicated emotions during the holidays

Identify your triggers

Holiday movies, carols, and classic literature will make you believe that this time of year is perfect. This is a lie. “Be okay with not being or feeling perfect, we all have this fantasy of family time going super well, but step back and recognize that’s not real life for some families,” says Rocha. “Take five to ten minutes to think about what your triggers (things that might upset you) are beforehand and figure out how to handle them. Stepping away or using a visualization or mindfulness technique can all help you work through the moment.”   

The holidays aren’t the Time to Work it Out

Airing your grievances with Aunt Susie over the stuffing isn’t a great idea. Not only do you have an audience, if you really have something to discuss it should be done privately, where you both can sit down and talk. Plus, you’ll both know it’s coming. “Don’t address big issues during the holidays. The holidays are really about compartmentalizing difficult relationships and figuring out a plan to cope. I always remind myself that it might be uncomfortable, but then it will be over. It’s a set amount of time but you can get through it,” says Rocha.

If you’re dealing with a loss

Loss of all kinds can be more challenging around the holidays. “Know your limits and give yourself the space and the time you need to heal,” says Rocha. “Instead of planning twenty-five things or stressing over the perfect food display, give yourself the permissions to do what you need to do.” Grief is a really personal thing and everyone handles it differently. If you’re really not up to getting together with a big group of people think about limiting your interactions—so planning a smaller family gathering or showing up to the big family dinner for dessert to limit the timeframe. Check-in with yourself and try not to isolate, some gatherings might seem daunting but might end up being fun once you’re there.  

Be careful with the booze

Wine goes down A LOT easier when you’re nervous or trying to shake the jitters. But in this case, it is not your friend. Rocha advises to just watch how much you’re drinking and to limit it especially if it’s going to heighten already intense emotions. Pay attention to why you’re drinking as well. If it’s to feel better or for a little liquid courage it might not be the best mindset to be imbibing in.

practice self-care

We’re not talking about the hashtag here. We’re talking about whatever you do to self-soothe. “A week prior to a large, stressful event, it’s always nice to make sure you get in a therapy session or a favorite exercise class,” says Rocha. “Don’t skip it! Even if it’s only a fifteen-minute walk outside, carve out time for a self check-in.”

hosting guests at Your house

Idle moments are ripe for uncomfortable conversations. It never hurts to pull together a mental list of activities to change the trajectory and tone of a day. “Having a plan for filling downtime is helpful and so is getting out of the house. Even if you don’t need them, just have a few things in mind just in case the downtime starts to get to people,” says Rocha.

dealing with estrangement

Family estrangement and the reasons for it are deeply personal. Rocha advises working through your specific situation with a therapist but did offer a few general suggestions. If your contact with a person is only limited, limit your holiday time with them. “Discuss a plan with the people you will be celebrating with ahead of time, maybe you decide to only invite the person over for dessert, but it’s important that everyone is on the same page,” says Rocha. If you’re dealing with a no-contact situation, she says to give your permission to experience a variety of emotions. “It’s OK to have two feelings at once, a mixture of sadness and relief at the fact that they’re not a part of your life, but a lot of times people are pushed to think of a situation in black and white when there’s really a lot of gray—let yourself be in the gray area where you experience both sadness and positivity.”

No matter what you’re dealing with this holiday season, know that we see you and recognize the complexity of this time of year. How do you handle complicated family dynamics? Let us know in the comments.

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1 Comment

  1. JC wrote:

    Love this advice! The holiday’s can definitely be a stressful time so these tips are great to keep in mind – and put into practice.

    11.19.19 | Reply