Ho Ho Holidays are Complicated...

David Olsen, Ph.D., LCSW and Erin Belanger, LMHC

Holidays are complicated. Family, traditions, joy… and grief. Maybe you’ve lost someone important in the last year, or maybe the important people you’ve needed aren’t the people you have. Either way, the holidays are more complicated, it seems, than any other time of the year.

You may have found ways to skate through this season without too much trouble, or maybe you’re just trying to figure out how to navigate this time of the year for the first time. Either way, here are five helpful steps for making the best of a difficult time, and maybe improving a few relationships along the way:

  1. First things first - remember you’re not changing anyone this year. Only more grief and frustration comes from trying to change others. You are not going to change your spouse, parents, kids, or the annoying uncle who brings up the controversial political or religious issue. Instead, the only person you can change is you. Rather than getting irritated with others, focus on your role in your interactions and work on managing your own reactivity. The wonderful thing about family is that there will be no surprises! Someone will push your buttons… the same someone who always does. You will want to respond with a sarcastic or angry comeback as you feel your agitation rising. Instead, do something different - redirect the conversation, or ask questions about what this person is interested in. Then, take satisfaction in knowing that you changed where the conversation usually goes when you’re “hooked”.
  2. Keep it simple! Don’t push yourself to be involved the whole season long and don’t make this the season that you’re going to fix your family and have the perfect holiday. Pick a few key events or groups of people to invest your time with and pass on the rest… and see above - you’re not going to change your family. If you try to push yourself to get out there and see everyone, and do everything… you’ll crash before the new year. If you try to fix your family rather than focus on managing your reactivity so that you can have some mildly improved connections, you’ll cause yourself endless pain and anger.
  3. Keep up self-care! Don’t stop going to the gym or to therapy. Don’t take up drinking as your new pastime. Keep taking that yoga class you started last month, or meet your spouse for a relaxed lunch out. Keep focusing on being aware of where your stress level is and what you need so that you can better track and change your interactions with difficult others. Without these healthy outlets, your ability to cope and remain self aware will decrease significantly, and no good comes from this.
  4. Make new traditions! No one says that you have to continue the traditions that remind you of your loss or of past trauma. Further, no one says that you have to stop participating in the holidays because of the same. If going to your parent’s house for holiday dinner reminds you of the alcohol-fueled chaos, suggest something new. A holiday breakfast or a new location for dinner might be the key to lower reactivity. Just don’t offer to host if you want to be able to take your leave early.
  5. Finally - find your reason for joy and gratitude… in the midst of grief. Even as you find ways to manage this holiday season, you may continue to feel some level of pain, grief, or longing for that unmet need. You’ll feel sad as you hear about friends who are enjoying their families, and you’ll tear up as you drive through neighborhoods filled with decorations. You will get angry at your family, at God, at yourself. This mix of feelings is not only the result of complicated relationships, but also of what is missing: family or friends who’ve died or moved away, or cutoffs that cannot be repaired. The holidays bring back memories of difficult past holidays, deep disappointment and hurt, or sadness for what cannot be changed. Though we may be tempted to push these uncomfortable feelings away, we’re doing ourselves a disservice if we do. To experience joy and feel true gratitude, we must also know and sit with grief, anger, sadness, and loss.

Meaning, in the end, does not come in the form of gifts under the tree. It comes instead from giving your undivided time, and carefully listening and tuning into your friends, partner or kids. In the end, these gifts are far more valuable than anything you can buy, and they bring joy and gratitude to last far beyond this holiday season.

So, share some less-than-perfect time with family and friends and keep taking care of yourself. This way, you can celebrate the new year with your sights set on ways to continue to heal so that the next holiday season (and every other difficult day between) can get a little less complicated and a little more connected.