Well with Christmas fast approaching, as a psychologist I find it interesting to note that the month of December is one of the busiest times of the year in the practice. What often brings people to therapy at this time of year is the quest to look for answers for dealing with challenging family dynamics, knowing how to manage expectations of others and how to survive Christmas Day with the least amount of emotional fallout or conflict as possible.
It is true to say that many of us adore Christmas, loving the festivities, the opportunities to connect and catching up on the year’s events. What we learn from a very young age is that traditionally it is a time to celebrate, to enjoy the closeness of family and friends, and to follow rituals that allow us to feel safe and secure in our connections.
Unfortunately for many of us the reality simply doesn’t match the harmonious dream that we are told Christmas stands for. So, I ask you, are we really prepared for how to deal with that let down or are we set up to believe there is something dreadfully wrong with us or our family because nothing is picture perfect?
The myth that all families are having this blissful family Christmas with everything going perfectly is simply that….. a myth – so rest assured my experience has taught me that many families face some kind of challenge over Christmas, but as for coping mechanisms, the dominant theme I hear is that many people are stuck as to how to get through it and struggle every year.
Feelings of disappointment, anxiety, sadness and failure often dominate. I hear people feeling overwhelmed, feeling pulled between different family member’s expectations, concerned about what to cook and how people will judge their food and often weighed down by a sense of obligation when at other times they have little contact. Christmas then becomes very stressful rather than joyful.
Christmas and the holiday season may be a roller coaster of emotions for many and this requires careful navigation to do more than just survive and to protect yourself emotionally. For many it feels like they are walking through a very complex dense maze, not knowing which turns to take and how to get out the other end healthy, strong and not completely exhausted.
So if you read on and see your own experience in these examples, although the reality may be confronting and may bring up some discomfort, remind yourself that you are by no means alone. When people come to me, it is often the case that they have done their best to avoid thinking about Christmas in the hope that this year it will miraculously get better.
Although this feels like a great strategy at the time, we know that this is a strategy to control immediate discomfort with little long term gain. We can’t fool ourselves completely. Our mind is too clever for that. So at times when your mind hooks into stories about what might happen, stories that are shaped by past experiences, you may expect an avalanche of worry, often overshadowed by an instinct to continue to hold on to hope for people to change – maybe it will be different this year? Maybe Dad will not be fighting with Mum this time? Maybe this time I will feel included? Maybe this time there won’t be a conversation that doesn’t feel judgmental of my choices in life? Maybe my aunt won’t get drunk and create a scene this year?
The good news is that by identifying the issues now rather than pretending they are not there or just ruminating on what might happen, you have the ability to work out a plan that will assist you in having a better Christmas Day experience this year, even with the knowledge and acceptance that some of these things may happen that you fear.
So when I enquire about some of the challenges that my clients experience at Christmas these are some of the most common themes that consistently emerge. Have a look and see if any of these sound familiar to you:
- Dealing with grief – Facing Christmas when you have lost a key family member is hard. Many people find the first Christmas and subsequent Christmas days after a major loss very challenging. Everything feels different and you may find it hard to feel festive in the face of intense grief.
- Strained family relationships – We can’t get along with everyone. Sometimes relationships are difficult and the differences between family members in values, behaviours, expectations and communication patterns may be uncomfortable to deal with whether it be with your family of origin, inlaws or within a blended family.
- Challenging family “roles”– As a family therapist, I often identify the roles people have fallen into within their family right from childhood, roles that often carry over into adulthood without being questioned. Often that role may have been reinforced over time or may have at one point held the family together, but often at a cost – e.g. the daughter who has always looked after everyone else’s needs at the cost of her own and steps in to ensures that harmony prevails, prevent conflict and potential breakup of the family. Sometimes therapy provides a safe space to identify and challenge these roles as an adult and as a result people may feel challenged by how to behave on Christmas Day in the context of this therapeutic change – e.g. How do I be the adult daughter I truly want to be and not fall into old patterns that are no longer serving my mental health?
- Attachment issues – For those who have not experienced close secure attachments with caregivers, and feel there were no “safe hands” to return to when things got frightening or upsetting, Christmas may highlight this absence and bring up a craving for more support and understanding.
- Dealing with enmeshed relationships – Enmeshed relationships are complex and are defined by the absence of clear boundaries between at least 2 family members (dyad), with a level of closeness that means that each person feels each other’s pain. The relationship is shaped by an expectation that other relationships outside this dyad or family system are not of the same priority. What this means at Christmas is that family members may feel an absolute pull and very rigid expectation by others in the family to do things their way and follow the old family rules. Feeling manipulated, confused and guilty are common emotions when choices are considered for how Christmas day is to be spent.
- Isolation – Many people experience the sense that they are the black sheep of the family, feeling as if no one gets them, resulting in a level of discomfort about facing conversations with family members.
So how may you deal with these issues?
We don’t get to choose our family and yet unlike any other relationships we are expected to find ways of making it work, no matter what presents. The expectation that we should be able to get along and have the perfect Christmas day because we are family is very powerful in our society. As we get older we learn what we can tolerate and choose to eventually walk away from partners, friends or colleagues when it feels unsupportive, hard, too conflictual, out of sync with our values and when we are not on the same page.
With family in my experience, it is a lot more complex. Complete disconnection is less commonly the most effective strategy as most people feel the desire to maintain some level of connection, unless the relationship has been identified as clearly abusive or very harmful to your mental health. There are always limits to what we can all tolerate and setting them is important. Every family is different and the issues vary greatly.
So what else can you do to have a better Christmas that is filled with more joy and less pain?
- Allow room for grief: If grieving the loss of a family member at Christmas, accept that your emotional responses will be mixed, unpredictable and that little things may trigger you. Allow space for the grief, taking time to acknowledge the person who you hold dear in your heart whose absence is felt. Hold on to those who you feel connected to within your family and anchor to those for support and stability.
- Acceptance of difference– Let go of the need to change or control the family members who trigger you, and accept the people for who they are with all their faults and strengths. Embrace the idea that you are not in control of others around you and are not so powerful that you can change your family. It might be time to stop beating your head against a brick wall waiting for significant behavior change in someone, and make room for the possibility that there are strengths there that you might be missing in the search for change. The more you hold on to hope that they will communicate respectfully at all times, share your opinions, understand you, show love and affection and respect what you do if they have never done it consistently, the more you set yourself up for disappointment and heartache. Wishful thinking is not the most effective coping strategy – being realistic and seeing the relationship for what it is lessens the impact of their dysfunction in your life. When you practice acceptance, at best , family members may surprise you with some changes that are pleasing (maybe they committed to some good therapy this year!) and at worst you won’t be knocked around by what happens and will be able to observe with a greater sense of detachment as you watch the same dynamics play out. Maintain a healthy emotional distance to protect yourself.
- Know when to stand your ground and when to let go – If you are facing attack from someone who regularly criticizes , such as “ You could really do with losing some weight – have you considered Weight Watchers?” consider the wisdom of silence sometimes rather than a defensive response that buys into their game and attempts to convince them to change their position. See if you can stop seeking approval as this often gives your power away and has you ending up feeling disappointed and dejected. Sometimes stepping out of participating in that dance is the most powerful thing you can do, because you step out of relying on someone for approval, knowing in your mind and heart your own values, your own thoughts and feelings but not letting their opinions affect your own choices or mental health. It is ok for you to be you, to live your life the way you choose and also to let them be who they are. At other times there may be times when you may need to assertively let someone know their behavour is unacceptable or to quietly walk away to move out of the line of a situation that may unnecessarily escalate. Taking responsibility for managing your own emotions and acting in line with your values is important.
- Set good boundaries to protect your wellbeing and relationships – Having clear and firm boundaries is one of the most important things you may do to enjoy Christmas Day and preserve relationships so that you can better appreciate what the family do have to offer you. Before Christmas Day work on identifying who are the people in your family who cause the most distress and consider how to set boundaries. Do you need to set a time limit for yourself to give you a point of exit? Do you need to restrict the conversation to certain topics and not be more open than you are comfortable with? Do you need to sit yourself close at the dining table to the relatives you are most comfortable with? Do you need to minimize contact with the relatives that most set you off at a large family function? Do you need to take your own car to give you the independence to leave when you need? These boundaries need to be set by you and are there to protect you and make you feel more comfortable. In enmeshed relationships, know that setting very firm boundaries will be challenging at first and perhaps set smaller limits that challenge the family rules (e.g. come to the family for dessert not the entire meal on Christmas Day and go to your in-laws for lunch) and are building blocks to stronger boundaries in the longer term to protect the relationships and yourself.
- Seek out others for support and love – We cannot choose our family but we are able to choose our friends. Our view of family is changing all the time and friends may form part of our close network who will provide the nurturing role we need when family members do not have the capacity. Seek out others in your social world who give you a sense of family and offer love and support. Break down feelings of loneliness and disappointment by reaching out over the Festive season to remind yourself that you are loved. Be proactive to ensure you meet those needs for connection and support. Also learn to pay attention to what your family do provide rather than staying stuck on what they don’t provide and find activities that you can engage with together that allow you to feel connected and experience joy.
- Be mindful: Take the opportunity to practice mindfulness at multiple levels. When your mind gets distracted by thoughts about other family members and you find yourself labelling others, see if you can step back with curiosity and simply observe form a distance. Be accepting of all the emotions that come your way during the day and allow all of them, ensuring you do your best to make room for joy, relaxation and laughter to balance the discomfort. Notice what lens you are looking through – pay attention to what you may appreciate about each family member and practice gratitude and compassion. Use all your senses to engage in what you are eating and drinking and be aware of the power of alcohol in family conflict – watch your speed and slow yourself down if you are inclined to drink more when anxious or uncomfortable. See the funny side of things and use humour to lighten the mood and get the most out of the day.
- Debrief: Finally, if you come from a family where Christmas is challenging, plan for a debrief of the events, whether it be with a sibling you get along with or a friend who you may bounce things off and vent to afterwards. A phone call within a day or so is always a good idea to touch base and ward off any lingering emotions that may escalate if left too long. Then schedule a longer catch up within a couple of weeks afterwards when holiday schedules end and people get back into normal life again.If working with a therapist, when you know these feelings are likely to be stirred up, book a session for after the Christmas break so that you can debrief and reflect on your experiences and discuss where the relationships stand now.
Remember that all these strategies are about honouring the importance of your family relationships, finding ways of accepting others and their differences and learning to appreciate and enjoy the positive qualities. Additionally it is about being more willing to accept some level of discomfort while not creating more than is needed and always make room for some enjoyment with family members you get along with and/or friends who fulfill those needs. Finding ways of making Christmas a more enjoyable experience is the goal; a goal that is achievable with a careful considered approach.
At Attuned we are here to assist you with improving your relationships while ensuring you live by your values and respect your own boundaries. Consider making an appointment to see someone if you feel you could benefit from discussing your own family dynamics.
Alexandra Frost, Clinical Psychologist