The Dysfunctional Family Holiday Survival Guide

Navigating  family relationships can be tough during the holiday season…

Johnny gets along with Sally but doesn’t get along with Sally’s husband. Your mother always makes your skin crawl when she asks you when that grand-baby is coming and you haven’t even had a date in 3 months, let alone a relationship with a man worth procreating with. You had a fight with your brother 6 months ago and haven’t spoken since, but you’ll all be sitting around Mom’s table for Christmas dinner. It can be crazy-making! For as much as you might love your family, when there are stressed relationships, the holidays have a knack for bringing out our best and worst behavior.

As with the rest of the year, you won’t be able to control what anyone else says or does, so I want to help you take care of YOU during this stressful, uh, joyous time.

How to take care of YOU this holiday season:

1. FOOD

You might want to indulge in comfort eating, but truly, next Christmas will be even more stressful if you are still carrying around the 10lbs you gained this holiday season (lol….I’m kidding!). In all seriousness, it’s important to be mindful around food when you are dealing with emotional triggers. Stress can cause us to go into auto-feed mode and it can be easy to eat our weight in Christmas cookies or Hanukkah latkes as a way of reducing our stress levels. Listen to your body. Eat when you’re hungry. Stop eating when you feel satisfied, not full. Give yourself some extra allowance for tasting the good food – but when you find yourself not noticing what you’re eating, slow down to get back into a mindful, conscious eating experience.

2. ALCOHOL

Drink until you’re singing Christmas carols with abandon! Uh, no, I didn’t really mean that.

LIMIT YOUR INTAKE Please be careful of your alcohol intake in potentially stressful family situations. It can be easy to over do it, thinking it will make the time more tolerable. In the end, alcohol is a predominant precursor to family feuds, so it’s best to keep intake at a minimum.
GET HOME SAFE The holiday season (between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day) is the deadliest on the roads for DUIs (you can see what I had to say about that in this HuffingtonPost article here ). Make sure that if you are going to socially drink that you take precautions to get yourself home. In addition to taxi’s there are now services like Lyft and Uber to get you home when you have imbibed.
RELAPSE PREVENTION PLANNING For those living a sober life after a battle with addiction, holiday family experiences, especially when stressful, can be particularly triggering. If you have struggled with alcohol or drugs and know that the holidays or family relationships can be stressful on you, there are things you can do to help you stay sober. Bring a “sober buddy” with you. This is someone else who is also in recovery and will agree to hang out with you and be by your side if emotions get strained and you feel tempted. If you participate in a 12-step program, you can arrange to call sober friends or your sponsor throughout the festivities. If you’re traveling, you can arrange to attend an AA meeting in the community where you are staying so that you feel close to your recovery.

3. MONEY

I personally love buying gifts for others and this is the one area where I have really had to set some limits for myself because I can easily over-spend when I see something I’m just sure someone I know will love. I bet some of you can relate. The best thing you can do for keeping you sanity when it comes to money stress during the holidays is to set a budget. You can find some great holiday budget-setting websites this time of year. Make your budget and then STICK TO IT! For as much as we might want to buy our sister that perfect pair of earrings, save it for birthday time when your budget may allow you to be more flexible. You might even get creative and make something for your family – a pretty tin with some home made cookies or chocolate can go a long way when you have many people to buy for. Whatever you do spend, remember that it is about the giving, not the getting, so buy and give gifts only when you truly want to. The holiday time is about love, connection, relationships and religious traditions. There is nothing written that says you must buy everyone at the party a gift. Be kind to yourself and respect your budget.

4. FAMILY VISITS

Do what feels right to you, not what you think you “should” do.
STAY ONLY AS LONG AS YOU ARE COMFORTABLE Especially when traveling to visit family during the holidays, many people plan to stay, or invite guests for longer than they really want to. They think, “Well, it’s the holidays, I should stay the whole week”, or “I’m traveling all the way there, I should make a longer visit out of it”. No – if you know you can only tolerate 48 hours with your extended family before you feel overwhelmed, don’t plan to stay longer than that. (See item #6. “Self Care” below for tips on taking care of yourself no matter how long the visit is.)
ACCEPT YOUR FAMILY MEMBERS FOR WHO THEY ARE, AS THEY ARE If you go in thinking, “This will be the year things will be different” you will inevitably be let down. A lot of family stress happens because we don’t accept our family members for who they are. When we come from a “dysfunctional” family (and quite frankly, who doesn’t these days?) we often wish for our relatives to be “more loving”, “less crazy”, “more like me”, or any other thing they haven’t been in previous years. This leaves you longing for a different emotional experience. If you took those glasses with the “if only” lenses off and put on the glasses with the clear, accurate lenses, you would see your family members for who they are as other human beings, rather than as relative to your existence. I promise you, this will enhance your visit because when you clearly see people for who they are in the life they are living, you can understand them better. When there is understanding, there is acceptance.
KNOW WHEN TO NOT VISIT There are definitely families in which getting everyone together does no one any good. There may be high conflict or you may truly have family members who are unhealthy to be around (emotionally abusive, neglectful, narcissistic), or there may be dysfunction in the form of active alcohol or drug addiction among family members. Respect how you feel. If you visit knowing that you would really rather not, save your money and time – you will end up resentful and that will add to the stress of the visit. For the family members you would like to see, make polite apologies about not joining them this year, then make plans to see them sometime soon after when you can genuinely appreciate the time with them.

5. FOR THOSE WHO ENJOY THE HOLIDAY TOGETHERNESS BUT CAN’T BE WITH THEIR FAMILIES

I live in San Diego and I learned in my first 6 months here that there are a lot of us transplants here (the majority of my family is in New York and other eastern states). There have been many years where it was not feasible to travel to visit on both Thanksgiving and/or Christmas. I personally LOVE the holiday season- I love the lights, the parties, the gifts and I know many people reading this do too. There are a couple of things that can bridge this gap to allow you the experience even if you can’t be exactly where you want to be.
VISIT VIRTUALLY Between FaceTime and SKYPE, it’s easy to feel
like you’re right there with your loved ones. No, you may not be able to taste Mom’s pumpkin pie, but you can see everything and say “Hi” to everyone when they are all together. If you’ve got kids, you can plan the virtual visit with the grandparents when the kiddos are opening their presents so that they can feel like part of the excitement.
START YOUR OWN TRADITIONS Many of the transplanted people I know, including myself, have standing holiday traditions that don’t include our families because of the time or expense of traveling for more than one holiday. By now you may have heard of “Friendsgiving” – that’s when a group of friends get together and have their own Thanksgiving dinner even if they are not family. My husband and I have a small group of friends we’ve been doing this with for the past 4 years. If you’re facing being alone and don’t like that idea, don’t be shy – let your friends and co-workers know that you really miss the Thanksgiving experience since your family is not around. You’ll be sure to be invited to someone’s house. Better yet, if you like entertaining, start your own tradition and hold the dinner at your place. There are so many people who are missing the family experience this time of year, they will be happy to get your invite. Many people invite active military service members to their home for a holiday meal. You can check out this page to see about opportunities for helping military families this holiday season.
MAKE A PLAN FOR BEING ALONE Many people end up alone over the holidays – sometimes it’s geographical hindrances, other times its due to social isolation or other emotional factors. It can often feel like you’re the only one alone as the whole world seems to shut down. This can be a great time to have a day that is strictly for comforting you – make yourself (or pre-order from your favorite restaurant) a great meal, take a bath, pick out a book you’ve been putting off reading or plan to watch a great movie. Then, of course, you can always volunteer somewhere to serve others during the holidays to brighten your spirit. In the end the holiday is just another day – 24 hours just like all the rest.

6. SELF CARE

It’s such a buzzword these days, self care, but it is essential, especially when your family stresses you out. Taking time out to tend to you will help you have a more positive experience.
PLAN IN “ME TIME” Maybe you enjoy your family, but you’re a person who is used to “Me Time” or just needs to be alone. Respect that and plan it into your visit. Just because you’re visiting for a week doesn’t mean you can’t get out one night to a movie by yourself or steal away for a coffee break alone. When you respect your needs, your visit will be more fulfilling.
EXERCISE Exercise can be one of the best stress relievers and it’s universally affordable. If you’re in a regular exercise routine before the visit, make sure to schedule it in during your stay. If you are not in a regular routine before the visit, just taking yourself for a 20 minute walk can help you feel less stressed. You’ll get some fresh air, quiet time and feel like you’re doing something healthy for yourself amidst all the food and festivities.
STAY CONNECTED WITH YOUR LIFE Break up the visit with a call to a good friend back home. Check in with your life (occasional email/social media/watch your local news online). It can help put things back in perspective especially if family stress is starting to pile up. Remember, you’re only visiting, you’re not moving in.

Now go and enjoy your lovely and dysfunctional family holiday! They’ll be happy to see you and if you stay mindful of the tips I’ve given you, you might even enjoy it more than you planned. Happy Holidays!

 

Happy Holidays from Coaching Through Chaos