Surviving Family During the Holidays

Welp. The holidays are in full swing!

However you interpreted that opening line depends on whether your personal interpretation of “the holidays” traditionally involves happiness or drama. Often the two are not mutually exclusive.

In my line of work, I frequently find people asking how to handle relatives during the holidays. This stems from a few things, which I tackle below, along with a practical way of handling each. And if you have followed my work for any length of time you will see how they all link together.

Relative Regression

One major concept common among all humans is that we tend toward a psychological principle called “regression” in the presence of our (former) voices of authority. In other words, even though we are adults, when we find ourselves around parents, teachers, coaches, clergy, exes, or others who may have influenced us in previous years, we tend to slip back into our old ways of being.

Simply put, regression is when we psychologically retreat to a mental state of yesteryear, during which we become quite like our former selves. For example, if you really respected a coach, you might fall into a state of deference. If you see the little cousin that you always teased, you might start teasing her again even though she’s 34. And if you were raised by highly judgmental parents, you might find yourself walking on eggshells around those same people – even though they, and you, may have changed considerably.

How do we deal with this? Simply by standing firm in who we are in the present day. Being self-aware is a key component to finding peace, but it is also key in tolerating distress. Around the holidays that distress can be brought by others, and knowing who you are is a great way to endure dad’s annoying (though loving) concern about your present career choice or Auntie Margaret’s comment that “it’s all downhill after 30, isn’t it?” as her eyes scan your torso. Knowing who you are means internally telling yourself that your career is gratifying and that you actually like your curves.

Substance Stressor

Another holiday stressor is alcohol. Sure, we all like to imbibe some of the traditional family hooch, whether it be eggnog, the once-a-year Tom and Jerry, or bourbon highball. For those in recovery from addiction though, holiday time can be a real challenge, especially if they are new to sobriety.

Experience has taught me that the first full calendar year matters significantly because certain anniversaries, holidays, and other landmark events can be the most difficult, but once they have been dealt with once, doing it again becomes easier. If you fall into this group, take heart that I also have a suggestion: own your recovery.

Learning how to assert your own status helps others know what is going on and to respect your boundaries. That way your cousin who always wants to “do the Fireball shots as a group” knows that you just aren’t into that anymore. It also further rehearses your own decision making and adds yet another practice round of success to the pile of temptation avoidance.

Being a Parent

The last item of holiday stress is children. Many times we find ourselves nearly waging war with our relatives, spouses, commercialism, and even our children themselves, simply because of the crushing demand to meet…whatever it is we think we need to meet.

Having a strategy ahead of time to handle this is paramount to retaining your own sanity. My family adopted (borrowed? stole outright?) a strategy that many people use, which is to have the children give away several of their toys in advance of receiving new ones. Not only does this foster and promote a true spirit of giving, but it also reduces clutter and re-focuses the kids on the real meaning of gift-giving.

The adults in our family have all agreed to stop gift-giving out of pure Pavlovian, commercialistic compulsion and instead just give throughout the year when the mood strikes. I cannot begin to tell you the freedom that comes from this, but also the strange peace that has settled across our household(s) as we enter the holiday season. Instead of wondering if our imaginary checklist of expenditures will match one another, we can instead spend our energy on truly serving others with our resources.

The undercurrent to all this, if you have not yet realized it, is an inner peace and confidence. Responding with reason rather than emotion, avoiding temptation, and eschewing materialism all hinge on one’s own ability to know oneself and practicing distress tolerance. If you can do this in your personal life throughout the year, the holiday season should be no different.

Enjoy the presence of your loved ones this winter. And, as a bonus, be at peace with yourself along the way.

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