Thanksgiving and Christmas are supposed to be times of joy and laughter, when we embrace the rituals that our families have honored throughout the years. Each family has a unique perspective on what constitutes a real Thanksgiving or Christmas. However, families rarely talk about the amount of anti-depressants and alcohol that are consumed to survive these traditions.
Imagine the freedom of getting this out in the open, so we can all make healthier choices this holiday season!
Acknowledge the Crippling Weight of Holiday Expectations.
Traditions are supposed to be something we gleefully anticipate--tapestries of memories, anchoring the common experience amongst family members. We feel that we should be happy during these times, which can become suffocating due to both internal and external circumstances.
It is terrifying to face the reality that you haven't spoken to your father since last Christmas, that two of your siblings are feuding, that you might explode if you have one more parenting tip from your sister-in-law...or a myriad of other stressful family dynamics. On top of this, your family may be unaware that you are silently struggling with a relationship that is crumbling apart, the grief of a dear friend's illness, or the loss of purpose in your career.
Despite all of this, we feel the heavy burden to project good cheer during family get-togethers. We also feel that we must have Dad's favorite stuffing, the perfect family Christmas picture to post on Instagram, and a gift for your nephew's girlfriend, even though you are on a tight budget.
You may want to just scrap it all, but there will always be cries from several family members, "But, it's tradition! We always do this!"
Move Past the Isolation of Thinking It's Just You.
I was so relieved when, years ago, my therapist told me that Thanksgiving and Christmas were her busiest times of the year. The family dynamics and expectations surrounding these holidays create high levels of anxiety for a lot of people.
Despite the happy memories we cling to from our childhood, we all have a few traumatic experiences from these family holiday traditions. The kind of memories that no one talks about around the dinner table, at least unless you've had one too many glasses of wine.
Furthermore, family gatherings can be quickly sabotaged by a recent death in the family, or a loved one's battle with mental illness.
Our closest friends are aware of how stressful the annual family Christmas dinner is for us, but the thought of admitting this to our family causes a cold sweat.
So how do we reach the balance between being true to ourselves and honest with our family, without starting a feud?
Three Steps Towards Making Authentic Holiday Choices this Year:
1. Try to pinpoint your biggest trigger.
Start with the activity or event that is causing you the most stress. Then ask yourself, "Why is this bothering me so much?"
When you come up with an answer, try to dig a bit deeper with at least one other WHY behind it.
Example: I am stressed about the big family dinner coming up. Why? Because I don't want to talk about how work is going. Why? Because I am afraid I will have a meltdown if I start talking about it. Why? I don't want to appear weak in front of my family.
2. Separate choices from obligation.
There is nothing you must do. If you feel you must do something, it's because of the consequences you don't want to deal with. You choose to pay your credit card bill because you don't want to deal with creditors and a bad credit rating.
Example: I feel that I must attend the big family dinner. If I don't, everyone will make me feel guilty about it and I will hurt my mother's feelings. However, I could choose to not attend this year. I wonder what would happen if I went away for the weekend to visit my friend instead? Would the joy of seeing my best friend outweigh the disappointment of my family? Is there another way I can address my fears, or do I need to take a drastic step?
3. Communicate Your Decision to Your Loved Ones, But Don't Expect Them to Understand.
I remember my therapist explaining to me that, when I make a brave decision, I cannot expect my family to understand why I am making this choice. In fact, it is often our family that struggles the most to understand a choice that breaks with tradition.
When you make a choice based on your own set of values, it is important to remember that other family members may not share your values. Know why you are making a decision, but allow others the freedom to disagree.
Example: If you have decided to skip out on the big dinner this year, communicate this ahead of time to your other family members. Try something like, "I'm feeling really stressed about the family dinner this year, so I've decided visit my best friend instead. I would love to connect with you before I leave, if you're up to that." No blame, no list of reasons why, just explaining how you are feeling and offering to connect in a less stressful way. If they ask questions, keep the conversation focused on how you feel, as no one can tell you that you don't feel a certain way.
A Word of Caution for When You Challenge Family Traditions.
I wish I could promise that when you make brave choices, you will be rewarded with peace of mind and the support of your loved ones. Unfortunately, this doesn't usually happen.
Just because you need to communicate your feelings, doesn't mean everyone else is ready to hear them. It is crucial to examine your intentions. If you are trying to change someone else's behavior, you are venturing into dangerous territory. Furthermore, as my therapist would say, NEVER try to parent your parents (nothing good ever comes from this!).
If you wish to feel peaceful this holiday season, you can choose peace on your own terms or peace from not rocking the boat. Both choices have consequences. Only you can answer which choice is best for you this year.
No matter how you decide to tackle the holidays, ensure that you take care of your emotional health during this stressful time. If you need some extra help doing this, check out Secondhand Therapy's free eBook, Start Investing in Your Emotional Wellbeing: 25 Practical Tips to Move Beyond Survival Mode.
Join the conversation about stressful family traditions on Facebook, Twitter, or in the comments below (#holidayanxiety).
Wishing you a happy holiday season--on your own terms!
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.
Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.