The holidays are marketed to us as a warm and cozy time filled with fulfilling family bonding. In my private healing practice, I have actually found that most people find this time of year challenging for one reason or another. Acknowledging this “pink elephant,” I wanted to offer some tips and techniques for navigating family gatherings as we prepare to enter the fray:
1. Establish Appropriate Expectations
The combination of history, deep bonds, and vulnerability generally make family relationships complicated. On the one hand, there is a deeply ingrained sense of love and closeness, which leads to a longing for authentic connection. On the other, our buttons are often exposed and easily pushed by our family members (especially parents and siblings). These two sides of the coin create unreasonable expectations: we enter the scene hoping for idyllic bonding based in nostalgia, which can be quickly dashed by the same old behaviors and interactions.
The solution is to set realistic expectations based on past experience. In preparation for a family gathering, take some time to reflect on the general dynamic of your family.
- How do the members of your family relate to each other as a whole – communication styles, values, etc.?
- What are individual members of your family like and how do you relate to each of them?
What is your role in your family and what patterns do you tend to fall back into?
Realize that these dynamics and interactions will likely repeat themselves – expect them to, instead of going in with idealized hopes. Rather than casting your family in a negative light, set appropriate expectations so you can optimize the potential for acceptance. This will allow you to recognize and appreciate what your family does offer instead of what they don’t but you wish they could.
2. Set Goals For Your Relationships
This strategy is a variation of the previous one. Unrealistic expectations keep us dissatisfied and longing for more than what our relationships can actually offer. Rather than striving for what you ideally hope to get out of a family relationship (e.g. with your mother, father, sibling, etc.), reflect on what you actually do get out of it – just as it is.
- Assuming that the relationship will never change or improve, do you genuinely want to maintain it?
- If so, why?
Almost invariably the answer is yes, and figuring out the why teases out what you do get out of it, even if it’s just a basic sense of connection or shared history.
Once you tease out this principle, set it as a goal for the relationship. Consciously remind yourself of this goal before every single interaction – whether on the phone, via email, or in person. This strategy helps you focus on something positive that you can and likely will get from the relationship, transforming disappointment into appreciation and genuine nourishment.
3. Take Breaks
Even when we establish realistic expectations and set achievable relationship goals, family gatherings can still be intense and overwhelming. Sometimes the best strategy is to just step off the family train. When needed, don’t be afraid to excuse yourself and take a break – go for a walk, call or chat with someone you feel totally comfortable with, check your email, etc. Do whatever it takes to reset and decompress. For extended periods of family gathering – several days or a week – make sure to schedule regular, daily breaks.
4. Remember, It’s a Limited Engagement
In addition to the various challenges that come with intense family time, we also tend to fall back into our childhood roles within the family – the overbearing mother, the bossy older sister, the pleasing brother, etc. These roles often don’t match up with the current, adult versions of ourselves. Falling back into these patterns are normal and perfectly fine as long as you remain conscious and accepting of them. Nonetheless, the unconscious shifting of gears can often be disconcerting – both to ourselves and especially to our partners, if present.
The key is to remind yourself that the role you play in your family does not characterize or define your life as whole. It is a temporary engagement with a limited timetable. You will return to your “normal” self as soon as you are back in your own environment, so don’t fret about the temporary regression.
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Despite what the commercials may tell you, the holidays tend to be an emotionally intense and challenging time. Whether you are looking forward to them or dreading them, try to use your family time as an opportunity for self-understanding and awareness.