The holidays are upon us in full force, and with them often comes spending time with immediate and extended family – a mixed bag, to be sure. Some families have wonderful holiday gatherings and enjoy the holidays immensely. For others, perhaps most of us, it can involve expected unpleasantness; old, unresolved problems and years of dysfunctional history.
Holidays tend to be a time of heightened emotions for many reasons. Typically one family member or a few work extremely hard to pull off a large traditional meal or a party. Many times there is pressure to invite family members with whom you do not routinely spend time, so there can be awkward or even unpleasant interactions. Many times, family members feel that they can broach highly personal conversations, like: “When are you and your new husband going to start having children?,” or “Why haven’t you gotten a job yet?”.
For many families, believe it or not, family members who are not present can influence the mood almost as much, if not more than those who are there: sadness when a dearly beloved individual has passed on; or anger when certain family members refuse to show out of animosity or spite. These emotions can have a hugely negative impact on the mood of the gathering.
Sometimes, when alcohol is served, this great disinhibitor can open the door for new arguments or bring up old, unresolved, uncomfortable feelings from the past. And it really is amazing how short some people’s memories are. They easily forget the disastrous family gathering from the year before and have the same expectations for the perfect family gathering this year. For many of these reasons, the holidays tend to create or exacerbate feelings of depression. This can also be true for those with no family to visit during the holidays or those whose families choose not to get together secondary to divorce, animosity or little motivation to interact with family.
The safest and probably most realistic advice is to adjust your expectations -- or go into the situation with no expectations. You have been through it year after year -- don’t make the same mistake of going into the family gathering with expectations your family members are incapable of meeting.
You can also be proactive about changing or avoiding negative dynamics: if you know your mother needs attention and accolades for her meal preparation, do it and be sincere. If Uncle John tends to drink too much and becomes obnoxious, avoid him or go home before he gets too drunk.
If your family is open to pre-holiday communication, create ground rules -- set the expectations and discuss what things you will do and not do. If honoring and remembering family members who have died is needed by some, plan for that and make it a special ritual. Have it as part of a special toast or prayer. If there are uncomfortable topics, enact a truce of silence on them for the day of the holiday, and plan a time to discuss the issue on a separate day if appropriate. Plan for the holiday gathering to be festive and plan to enjoy it. If the gathering is headed south and it’s not at your house, pleasantly excuse yourself and go home before it gets ruined for you.
For those of you who have a great time with your families at the holidays, enjoy and be thankful. Happy Holidays!