While we all might desire the kind of holiday perfection we see in a TV movie or all over Pinterest, we will inevitably fall short. We live in the real world, after all, not in the movies or someone’s whitewashed home-crafting highlight reel.
It can be even harder to make holiday magic when you know you have a truly dysfunctional family. We turned to a few of our experts to find out how you can enjoy your holidays without letting the humbugs ruin your plans.
Ask the experts
“Holidays are tough,” says Connie Podesta, author of Life Would Be Easy If It Weren’t For Other People. “You’ve got high expectations, childhood memories we either want to duplicate or totally forget. And we have family members that literally drive us crazy, all smashed together at a table eating lots of carbs and sugar. It’s a recipe for disaster.”
And Pat Pearson, clinical psychotherapist and author of Stop Self-Sabotage, says it’s important to remember that, come holiday time, no one has changed. People on the whole stay who they are. So, what do you do?
1. Don’t expect to heal old wounds
Don’t use holidays as a time or place to repair old childhood wounds, Connie suggests. With difficult family, keep conversation simple. Don’t start a debate or get drawn into their drama. If you can't answer without wanting to lash out, then just excuse yourself from the conversation and don’t come back. Don't apologize, defend yourself or make excuses. Just hang near the people you like and that like you. Also, don’t forget to breathe.
2. Don’t expect people to change
Don’t expect people to be any different from who they are, Pat says, whether it’s the relative who drinks too much, the couple who exudes tension or a family curmudgeon. “Whatever (or whoever) irritated you last year, will probably do so this year, so be prepared,” says Pat. Going into your holiday hoping people will be different this year just sets you up for disappointment.
3. Put the “fun” in dysfunctional
Pat says you can use a positive attitude to put the “fun” in dysfunction. “If there is lots of unstructured time, that’s when the old dysfunction can arise.” She suggests watching a favorite family movie, playing a game for all generations like Balderdash or planning a fun activity such as encouraging everyone to share their best Christmas memory.
4. Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries
If someone tries to put you off balance, remind yourself not to personalize it. How people act and behave is a reflection of who they are and has nothing to do with you. Even though it can be tough, try not to personalize hurtful comments. Pat says remind yourself not to take the bait and rise above the clamor by mentally sending love to everyone before you walk in the door.
5. Plan ahead
Do you want to lose your mind when your father says, “You don’t need those chips”? Set limits ahead of time about things like how long you might stay at a family function. Rent a car if you are flying in so you have the freedom to come and go. If you’re stuck in the house, take a walk or call a friend. Try and have some go-to coping strategies in mind before you get there.
6. Control what you can control
Whether your family has profoundly hurt you or regularly offends you, use holiday time to become an even stronger person. No one can touch your thoughts, so think what you want, laugh to yourself and give yourself tremendous amounts of compassion as you navigate your complicated family landscape. When you meet dysfunction with incredibly healthy functioning on your part, you don’t hand over your emotions to anyone else.
7. Look for joyful moments
Give yourself a healthy reminder that this is life, not a sparkly Christmas movie. Toss out all notions of achieving perfection, but try to create moments that are special to you. Maybe that is sitting in front of the fire in cozy winter socks sipping eggnog when everyone has left. Or just enjoy the simplicity of your family members’ presence without expecting a lot.
Sandra Bienkowski is a regular contributor to Live Happy and the founder and CEO of TheMediaConcierge.net.