Surviving the Holidays
The holiday season can be challenging for those of us who have experienced family abuse, scapegoating, estrangement or other serious personal losses in our immediate and extended families. The holidays can painfully underscore either a past that was and will never occur again, or a past that never was and will never be with family. Feelings of grief can intensify during the holiday season, not only due to these losses, but the pressure of social expectations, traditions and norms that place a high value on the sanctity of family and togetherness that may neither be realistic nor desirable for an estranged or ostracized family member. People who have opted for No Contact with difficult family members often find themselves feeling alone and out of sync with a culture that does not recognize this kind of loss, nor understands the toll it can take on the individual. And cultural expectations that we will all be looking ahead to the New Year while celebrating with family can seem like a cruel joke for people who are mistreated by their own family.
The challenge of the holidays for scapegoated or estranged people is, in essence, a more amplified version of the daily coping required to deal constructively with toxic family dynamics. The key is to have a plan to deal both healthily with difficult emotions – such as sadness, loneliness, anger and grief – while allowing yourself to live in and enjoy the moment – and season – as much as possible.
How to Thrive During the Holidays
In addition to taking care of the basics, and common sense approaches – including adequate sleep, nutrition and exercise, estranged or ‘Low Contact’ folks have found the following strategies to be helpful:
Maintain Perspective – Follow These Twelve Rules to Avoid Becoming Hijacked by Stress
- Remember – The foremost purpose of any holiday is to rejuvenate yourself through rest, enjoyable activities and decent company, if you choose the social route. Keep this in mind as you make plans and invest your time over the holidays.
- Reflect – Holidays force us to hit the ‘pause’ button. Take some time to focus on your life’s purpose. If you are dealing with family relationship challenges, do your actions align with who you are – or want to be – as a person? For example, maintaining dignity and civility in spite of the difficult behavior of others. Not selling yourself short in order to fit in or ‘go along’ with family expectations. Have you experienced many relationship problems with family this past year? If so, do you need to set more limits with challenging family members in order to protect your peace of mind? Don’t forget that healthy limits set a good example in any situation, as it lets people know that you respect yourself and have baseline expectations of civil behavior in all relationships.
- Recommit – Make your emotional well being your top priority, especially if you have been mistreated by family. No one deserves to dissolve into distress or poor health due to uncivil family dynamics. Protect yourself by treating yourself counter to the way difficult family members attempt to make you feel. Committing to your mental and physical health sends the opposite message to family who may be determined to undermine you. As the saying goes, ‘Success is the best revenge’.
- Reintegrate – Make decisions about how to approach the holidays, and the big picture of your life, in ways that reflect your deepest beliefs and values. Let principles of self worth, civility and respect guide you. Pledge to being even more true to your core values as you enter the new year.
- Make Plan(s) – Avoid feelings of loneliness, victimization and vulnerability by deciding how you will spend key holidays, especially Christmas day and New Years Eve, ahead of schedule. Determine what is important to you. For example, to connect and spend time with at least one person who is in your corner, or to have a day alone where you treat yourself like you really matter. If you choose to spend time with one or more people, make sure they understand the necessity for no or low family contact, as you focus on creating good memories in the present. If you decide to spend time alone, or don’t have the choice but to be alone, do something that makes you feel special, such as having a good meal and indulging in activities that you particularly enjoy.
- Be Real With Yourself – Allow yourself to experience emotions and thoughts voluntarily, especially those that serve your well being. Accept that you may feel the pain of family loss at times. If you feel overwhelmed or numb, use grounding strategies such as slow breathing, to reorient yourself and lower anxiety
- Normalize The Experience – Holidays can be a lonely time if family relations are strained. Understand that you are not alone. Many people have difficult family relations that can only be managed strategically or by maintaining distance. This does not mean that you are contrary, uncooperative, dramatic, a baby, or any other false accusations that may be hurled at you if you as you attempt to maintain healthy boundaries.
- Avoid Triggers – The holidays can be a time when perfectionism kicks in. Lower your expectations of yourself by keeping activities simple and focusing on maintaining your health. Stay away from conflict, emotional topics and minimize contact with people who don’t understand the need to distance yourself from abusive family dynamics. Give a wide berth to others who pressure you to “patch things up” with difficult family members, or to “forgive and forget” people who deliberately attempt to sabotage you. If you can’t avoid being around family who tend to push your buttons, decide ahead to limit your time, and have an exit strategy mapped out in case tension escalates. Avoid events where there will be a lot of alcohol consumption.
- Stick To Healthy Coping Strategies – Keep it simple over the holidays by focusing on the fundamentals that support well being, specifically rest, nutrition and exercise. Avoid ‘self-medicating’ with drugs, alcohol or food, etc., so you can stay aware of your emotional needs and take care of yourself effectively from moment to moment.
- Create New Holiday Rituals – If you feel positive about the family and friendships you have created outside of your family of origin, build from there. Do activities that are outside of the norm of traditional social and nuclear family experiences and expectations. There is no right or wrong here, but it’s important to do what feels sensible, healthy and rewarding.
- Maintain Objectivity aka ‘This Too Shall Pass’ – The Holidays are like ‘life on steroids’, but are also time limited and transient. Remember, there’s a one and one half week period that you can and will survive with strategic plans that can take you into the New Year minus additional trauma, hurt or remorse. It does require, however, that you take charge, and leave nothing important to chance.
- Get Help If You Are Stuck – Having a bout of the blues during the holiday season may be a normal, though temporary, reaction to Low Contact or estrangement from family. If the pain lingers, or is particularly challenging, contact Glynis for a counseling appointment, especially if you are having a hard time managing strong feelings such as chronic grief, anxiety, anger, sadness or self doubt in the lead up to or after the holidays.
Photo Anthony Tran – Unsplash
Need help dealing with difficult family dynamics and emotions during or after the Holiday Season? Request a Counseling Appointment with Glynis Sherwood
Counseling and Therapy is available by Video around the world.
Glynis Sherwood – MEd is a Counseling Therapist specializing in recovery from the pain of Childhood Abuse and Neglect, Family Scapegoating, Chronic Anxiety and Grief, Relationship Problems, and Love Addiction.
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