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Holiday Survival Guide – Navigating Difficult Emotions and Challenging Personalities

As another November draws to a close, we are faced with the task of being thankful… or performing thankfulness at the very least. Is it any surprise that the traditional western “holiday season” almost perfectly lines up with the cinematic awards season? While celebrities and up-and-comers are turning in career-defining performances, so are many people who show up to family gatherings, plastering on an even-keeled disposition in order to evade the barrage of are you okay’s and what’s the matter’s. While there are certainly a lucky few whose family gatherings are nothing but joyous, drama-free, reunions marked with life-long traditions…for the rest of us “home for the holidays” may come with a more complicated experience. What if you didn’t have to fake it until you make it? What if you could show up to more “complicated” family gatherings with an arsenal of coping mechanisms that would make things seem a little less dire, even when they still see you as a recalcitrant personality that may have gone out with the 90s grunge era? This holiday season, you do not have to suffer in silence. Instead, you can reset and recharge, either silently, or vocally, whichever path you decide to take. 

It can be difficult coming together with family and friends whom you may not see very often, and during the holidays, that experience can be intensified due to travel, bringing a partner home, coping with financial challenges, or looming year-end deadlines. The journey to that special place called “home” may be full of challenges, and with all that in mind, it’s important to remember,

Holiday Survival Tip #1: Travel stress is real; it is an unfortunate by-product of getting from one place to another in a time when instant-gratification is deemed the standard. Try to diffuse your stress with therapeutic exercises or thought-blocking techniques.

Technology can be your friend in these moments of heightened stress: download a meditation app, listen to am ambient soundscape. If you’re looking for a non-digital means of unwinding, try deep-breathing exercises, increase your water intake, or simply close your eyes. These simple coping strategies can help alleviate the resentments that may come along with the “I traveled across the country” thinking that often accompanies the recent arrival of stressed out and tired travelers.

Once settled into your accommodations, that’s when the real fun begins. Perhaps the most important thing to remember this (and every) holiday season, is that

Holiday Survival Tip #2: Just as the seasons change, so do people.

With the advent of social media, our ability to “keep tabs” on loved ones has been greatly enhanced, however it only casts a light on the specific aspects of life that the user, our loved ones, choose to share publicly. Therefore, it is possible to devise a false sense of knowing about the family members with whom you are connected on social media. Presumptions can lead to conflict, which leads us to our next tip.

Holiday Survival Tip #3: Try not to presume you know how someone is doing based on their social media presence.

Sure, it can be tricky, but start conversations with non-leading questions that are open-ended such as “what is getting you excited these days” or “tell me about your favorite memory of the past few months.” People love to hear themselves speak, so let them. Ask questions that elicit responses that may be interesting to you. And of course it is a two-way street— share some things about your experience that may be interesting to your listener and if your listener is someone who tends to come with emotional “tension”…steer clear of triggering topics and focus on themes with which you both can resonate.

Holiday Survival Tip #4: Maintain your power by saying nothing until you are ready to respond, and do your utmost not to react.

Sometimes the simplest and most direct route to removing the conflict from an interaction with a loved one is to not say anything immediately. With the shared history that often accompanies insulting and hurtful comments (whether they are intentional or not is beside the point) it can be difficult not to pounce and return the painful jab that you just received. However, the position of peace and power is not found in the louder voice, but in the bolder, more strategic move— and that move is to say nothing, and then…NOT respond at all OR respond in a way that is in line with your values and who you want to be…not react because an old cycle or wound gets triggered.

Holiday Survival Tip #5: Calmly reframe with an “I feel” statement. No one can tell you how to feel, and they certainly can’t tell you that you don’t feel something.

Using “I feel” statements may keep you out of the line of fire. Alternatively, stating things as “fact” can often trigger someone who may have a different perspective or life experience. With these strategies in place to assist in the touchy conversations that may arise, it is also important to remember that… 

Holiday Survival Tip #6: People do not gather at times of celebration and holiday to be miserable together— people congregate to show love for each other.

While many family gatherings may feel like forced-fun, maintaining perspective can be a useful and helpful tool. If you find yourself amongst family or friends and it starts to feel obligatory, it can be comforting to know that you have a place to go for the holidays and that people want to see you…even if they can be annoying at times!

Holiday Survival Tip #7: Find a change of scenery.

If you’re the type who likes to volunteer, find a space where you can give back to the community— if you would rather spend some quiet time, grab a book and a quiet space, or go to a movie. Go for a walk, a swim, a run, a hike— there are so many options for simply altering a pattern that feels like a routine and reinventing your own holiday story. It doesn’t have to be the same tale that you have maintained for the past…however many decades.

With all that said, the most important reminder of all is…

Holiday Survival Tip #8: You’re not alone.

Many people experience feelings of discontent, sadness, grief and loneliness around the holidays. Many people are yearning for loved ones lost and the holidays make that loss more salient.  For most families there are bound to be conflicts that will arise from old stories that may have far-surpassed their shelf-life. By practicing patience and denying the impulse to believe that the world (your family!) is “out to get you,” perhaps some of the heightened family drama can diffuse into a new holiday tale.

And lastly:

Holiday Survival Tip #9: Even if you’re celebrating the holidays by yourself, you are not alone.

Often we are forced to view this time of year as one where the end-all-be-all is family— and if you’re not with your family, we are socially conditioned to feel like we are less-than or somehow got a raw deal. However, there are many reasons one might not be with their family for the holidays— it could be a choice, a mandate, a job, or simply circumstance. Being “alone” at the holidays can feel dire and grave, but again, simply keeping perspective can be helpful when the sadness starts to creep in. You are certainly not alone in this feeling: perhaps not being with your family evokes a feeling of joy, or despair, or isolation… all valid feelings when celebrating with loved ones, family, or by yourself. You may also enjoy choosing to be with “friemly”, or friends you’ve chosen as family – what a wonderful way to spend the holidays! Whatever your situation is during this holiday season, know that you are not alone.

From all of us at The Clinic, we wish you a joyous holiday season and all the best in the coming year. We feel grateful to be of support to our patients, each other and our community.

Author: Nathan Tylutki, MA

On June 11th, our current electronic health system will transition to a new and advanced system to better serve you: Athena. Prior to the transition date, you will be sent a registration link to create a new patient account in Athena. If you have any immediate questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to contact your therapist, or call our office to speak to a staff member.