Surviving your Family this Holiday Season

David Olsen, Ph.D, LCSW

The problem with the holidays for many people is the "F-word"...Family!  How do we enjoy and savor the holiday season in the midst of all the complicated feelings our families bring up?  What makes it so difficult?  While advertisements and television commercials picture wonderful family scenes full of warmth, love, and good cheer, the reality is often quite different.  Family holidays can be painful, depressing, or just plain stressful.

The holidays bring up many sets of emotions: excitement, anticipation, as well as grief, anger, frustration and any number of unresolved issues. While there is often wonderful anticipation of being together for the holidays, there is also the potential for those get-togethers to become irritating, or worse.  No wonder so many popular holiday movies depicting disastrous misunderstandings are both funny and poignant, as well as sometimes hitting too close to home.

While getting ready for the holidays involves shopping, decorating, and meal preparation, it also means getting ready for those predictable family interactions. Consider several potential holiday party crashers:  the "button pusher", the problem of unresolved hurts, and the problem of feeling like a stranger.  All of these can make the holidays difficult.

Every family has the "button pusher."  That would be the person who has an ingenious ability to push your (or your relatives') buttons.  They may bring up an extreme political or religious issue, and before long you are "hooked" into an argument.  Or they know too well where you are sensitive and know just the right comment to hit you with.  This election season brings many opportunities for this type of conflict! Within a short time, it is easy to feel like you are fifteen years old.  

With the current political climate, the button pusher may know just what to say to make you uncomfortable. Discussions of gun control, asylum for refugees, terrorism and the like can turn a pleasant holiday meal into heartburn. Many struggle with a parent or sibling who knows just how to hit a raw nerve. Sometimes only the weather is a safe topic. Oh wait a minute, no! The button pusher will turn that into a debate about climate change!

A second familiar holiday problem is the problem of unresolved hurts.  Some people dread the holidays for that reason.  Consider the person who grew up with alcoholism and the potential disasters that would happen over the holidays as the result of too much drinking.  They became used to expectations that were routinely dashed and learned to think of the holidays as simply something to get through.  These past images are stored deep in the heart and then reactivated during the holidays, often resulting in depression, anxiety, and dread.  

This gets even more complicated with the expectations of a culture that sets the bar high for the holiday.  Others may not have had to deal with alcoholism or abuse, but may have grown up feeling unloved or not validated.  They often hope that they will get the gift they have always longed for--unconditional love, validation, or an apology.  As a result they are usually disappointed, and even more hurt than before.

Finally, many people feel like strangers with their own families.  While "home" is a word that should bring to mind warmth and security, and the phrase "home for the holidays" should bring to mind wonderful images; that is often far from the case.  While there may be little conflict, and things may go smoothly, they are left with the uneasy feeling that they are with strangers.  They do not feel seen, or understood, and might even feel that their family members would not be the people they would pick as friends.  They may feel like they have to work to get through the holidays.  Since being seen and known is a profound human need, when you don't get that with your family, the result can be painful.

While these three issues are very complicated, holidays can be more meaningful and less painful if you have a plan. There are very few surprises with family.  If you can predict what the button pusher will do, you can change the interaction by not taking the bait and offering a more creative solution.  In the same way, understanding painful history and how it gets reactivated during the holidays can be helpful in getting prepared.  If you do not typically feel understood or seen, lower your expectations for family visits and book a few get togethers with friends who really do connect with you shortly after your family visit. There is even also a growing movement to keep things simple during the holidays. For the past few years, some people celebrate "Buy Nothing Day" during Black Friday and send messages to their friends inviting them to create new rituals that celebrated mindfulness and sanity.

Holidays, while not easy, are an opportunity for growth even in the midst of difficult family interactions.  When we are successful in changing patterns, in shifting interactions and even rebuilding relationships, holidays can take on new meanings.  Consider setting clear goals for handling the holidays differently this season, and give yourself the gift of growth!