It seems unnatural to put the words holiday and stress together. Holidays are a time when you are supposed to be carefree, happy, and in the mood to enjoy your loved ones. Yet, the holidays stir up a lot of stress for us.
In fact, your stress goes up almost 40% during the holiday season. Lack of time, money, commercialism, the pressure of giving and getting gifts, and family gatherings account for slightly more than 50% of the stress you feel during the holiday season (Holiday Stress Report by Greenberg, Quinlan and Rosner, December 2006).
My post today is about the stress of family gatherings during the holidays. Holidays evoke strong positive emotions in us, like the feelings conveyed in Thomas Kincade’s Home for the Holiday’s painting. Its image provokes so many wonderful things for us, a warm home, loving family and friends, good food and drink, and a carefree day of unconditional, holiday love. But, a holiday family get together can bring up negative emotions as well. The shared closeness can become an opportunity for airing resentments with the hope of resolving old wounds.
It only takes a few hours of togetherness for the stress of family gatherings to rear its ugly head through the veneer of holiday cheer. What exactly is this stress all about? In that get together, we bring to the holiday party unhappy memories of our childhoods, our conflicts with relatives who we’ve come to regard as toxic to us, and the losses of the year.
“I sure hope my brother doesn’t ask me about my divorce”, you may say. “He is so judgmental. I’m so glad it’s only one day a year that I have to see him.” Maybe, for you, this year, you want to be treated like the forty-eight year old adult that you are, rather than the baby in the family. Or, maybe you want acknowledgement that your parent loves and respects the life that you’ve chosen for yourself.
Beneath your anxieties and fears, you are still hoping for a stress-free time with your family, and that your worse expectations will not be confirmed. Your hope for the conflict-free, happy family has deep cultural roots. It stems from what the personality theorist Carl Jung called an archetype, an idea or concept that holds special meaning for us culturally, and is instrumental to the survival of culture. Family is an archetype that is also instrumental to your survival. Family is supposed to be loving and supportive, have our backs no matter what happens, and a place that we can always call home.
This idea of family is etched deeply into your unconscious. No matter how much your personal experience with family falls outside of the cultural ideal, you will try to create a good family for yourself, in life. We spend most of our lives either repairing the relationships we already have or forming new ones to realize the family of our dreams.
Holiday family gatherings are ripe as an opportunity for healing old wounds and restoring our faith in family life, once again. This is what the great holiday movie classic Di Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life is all about. Its message of downfall, redemption, and the restoring of relationship speaks to something deeply archetypal in us.
There are many anxieties and fears and emotional expectations that you bring to the holiday table. Sometimes what lies beneath the upsets over how to manage time, money, and the giving and getting of gifts during the holidays are really left-over family resentments that you hope to resolve this year. You may need mom or dad to show you that you are respected and loved. Or, perhaps, it is a sibling whom you want more love and respect from this holiday season. Maybe you want a child to forgive you for some past transgression. If you don’t recognize fully what you may really be hoping for, you may leave a family gathering feeling disappointed and hurt.
The following five tips help you to have a stress-free family gathering this year.
Tip 1: Sidestep power plays. In the next few weeks, when you or other family members start to quibble over who will hold the family dinner this year, how much money to spend on presents, and who to buy for, or how to split time between your and your spouse’s family, know that you and your family members are really starting to work out anxieties over the upcoming holiday family gathering. Some people need to resurrect old family dynamics to feel in control of a threatening situation. The most controlling person in your family is also the most anxious and less able to tolerate the unknown. Sidestep such power plays. Does getting your way in party arrangements really matter? Is this family gathering really the last hill that you want to go down on, as they say? You’ll get rid of a lot of stress this holiday season, if you get your priorities straight. The goal is to enjoy yourself, not to return to family conflicts and dramas that keep you stuck in the past.
Tip 2: Lower your expectation for healing wounds. Rome wasn’t built in one day, and neither will the conflicts in your family be resolved in one holiday season. It’s not the time to confront conflicts and wounds from the past. No matter everyone’s openness to each other, no one wants to think they’ve come to a party and found instead group psychotherapy.
Put your bitter sweet memories of the past aside this holiday. No matter how inadequate your childhood, the holiday season is not the time to nurse old wounds. Resist letting old wounds dictate how you feel and behave. Be mindful of your responses to what’s going on. If your reactions take you out of the holiday mood–change them. Do not let yourself go to a dark place from your past.
Tip 3: Don’t slip into familiar family roles. It’s so easy to slip into old family roles at family gatherings. Your birth order establishes a role for you with your siblings and parents, as you already know. You also took on roles in childhood that some of you have worked hard to shake off, like the hero, the underachiever, the prankster, or the family black sheep. This is what is familiar to you and your family members. Dare to do something different this family gathering. Stay true to yourself. Don’t fall into any role that does not make you feel good about yourself.
Tip 4: Stay confident. Family gatherings may bring together relatives who you may have worked hard to avoid in life. The judgmental members of your family are most toxic to your self-esteem. They never take a day off, and are ready to hurt your feelings, no matter the time of year. It’s a look or a subtle and sometimes not so subtle statement that talks negatively to something with which you are struggling. If you have been out of work for a time, that nasty sibling may say, “There’s a job for everyone who really wants to work.” Or, perhaps you are dealing with depression, addiction, or some other mental health problem. You may hear from that competitive cousin that you’ve tried hard to avoid,”I think the real problem is willpower”. Stay confident; you know who you are, what you are doing, and where you are going in life. Others opinions do matter.
Tip 5: Get enough rest and nourishment. You’ve most likely been running around for weeks, like a chicken with its head cut off. You may be eating more sweets and fatty foods and sleeping less, all of which adds to the physical and mental stress you feel. This along with gift buying, decorating the home, attending children’s holiday activities, and carrying out usual home and work responsibilities can leave you feeling tired and on edge, making it harder for you to cope with your family than at other times of the year. Take care of yourself, so you can handle whatever family issues arise.
Let me leave you today with a fun, contemporary holiday movie called The Ref (1994) with Denis Leary, Judy Davis, and Kevin Spacey that talks to my topic today. A thief, Denis Leary, breaks into the wrong home Christmas Eve, and gets a family rife with resentments instead of the booty for which he had hoped. This holiday comedy highlights the typical expectations, disappointments, resentments, and unresolved issues with family members that holiday family gatherings often bring to the surface. I recommend it highly.
If you liked my post today, please say so by selecting the Like icon that immediately follows. I welcome your thoughts, comments and experiences about today’s topic. Warmly, Deborah