Surviving Family Time During The Holidays

by Shira Myrow and Kristine K Johnson

For most of us, family is incredibly complicated. While the holidays can be a time of celebration, tradition and coming together, the idea of a happy, loving family can also provoke feelings of anxiety and stress for those of us whose families don’t quite live up to our hopes and expectations.

On some level, most of us know that the perfect image we envision is largely a cultural fantasy shaped by the media and advertising.  But if we don’t consciously question that fantasy, it can create a false sense of pressure --and an expectation for us and our families to conform to an unrealistic ideal. 

The truth is that there’s a huge range of experience around family. Families are the tribe from which we come from, and the desire to be with family and stay connected is deeply compelling.  The other truth is that our familial relationships are often fraught with unresolved issues that may carry simmering tension and ambivalence.  The holidays can exacerbate what’s already a built-in tension. 

Yet there are several ways to approach this desire to connect and also take care of ourselves in the process.

Cultivating Mindfulness. Mindfulness is the ability to be in the present moment, without judging your experience. Mindfulness is a practice of simply observing your thoughts, feelings and sensations whilehaving compassion for yourself and for others.  It’s a powerful mindset that can free you from over-identifying with your emotional reactions. Mindfulness can help you stay groundedas you create space from thoughts and emotions that arise, and that would otherwise derail you. Most importantly, mindfulness cultivates compassionate awareness--for yourself and for others.

Take care of yourself by knowing your limits. Family time cannot always be controlled or curated into a meaningful or joyful experience. Sometimes not even a peaceful one.  There are always different agendas and personalities at play and oftentimes, without healthy boundaries, family time isn’t a particularly safe space. 

No one is going to take care of your feelings. So knowing and respecting your limits is critical to staying centered. Advocating for yourself may mean setting a boundary or stepping if you find yourself getting triggered.  Resist the temptation to get into a heated argument over politics or some other loaded issue. Your family may not have healthy boundaries, but you can be aware of your own limits. Honor the part of you that has reached a threshold, otherwise stress, resentment and overwhelm can quickly sour your mood. 

Reduced Expectations. None of us can fully be our authentic selves in the family context.  If we reduce our expectations and separate our desire for acceptance and closeness from what is actually present, we can suffer less. If we accept the inherent limitations of being with our families--we don’t have to superimpose and experience such intense disappointment when our family holiday doesn’t live up to thefantasy. 

Your family may never fully recognize you or see you in all of your complexity or authenticity.  But it doesn’t mean that you have to dread family time or opt out altogether.  If we can accept the paradox instead of denying it, it’s easier to release some of the pressure and tension off the holiday season.

By consciously identifying unrealistic expectations, practicing mindfulness, and accepting your limits, you can negotiate the holidays in a way that is more compassionate and self attuned.