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When we’re children, we are usually taught the holidays are a magical time to be together with friends and family. However, for many of us, that magic fades as we grow up and begin to recognize our family’s dysfunction. I believe that no family is perfect, but for many people, the holidays bring up a reminder of just how imperfect their family is. This leads to stress and anxiety as people try to navigate how to honor their families over the holidays without feeling trapped in dysfunctional cycles. It can even be a challenge to determine how you want to spend the holidays, so I’ve compiled a list of questions to ask yourself as you begin to make your holiday decisions.

The People

Once we reach adulthood, it becomes less of a given that every holiday will be spent with all family members. It is a challenge to connect with everyone when we are on the hook for travel expenses, time off requests, and conflicting schedules with our partner’s family. While I could write an entire post about how to choose which family members receive your time, here are some questions to ask as you evaluate your holiday parties.

How much time do you reasonably have to give?

Can you afford to take time off of work or does your job require that you work a lot around the holidays?Are there other people in your life that have become more of a priority and require more of your time (partners, children, coworkers, neighbors)?

Who are the people that are closest and most important to you?

This question can be challenging because it feels “mean” to exclude people from plans or deny certain invitations. This becomes even more challenging when dealing with family members that have hurt us in the past. However, it is important to understand who you are choosing to spend the holidays with and why they are a priority to you this year.

What are the memories you want to have of this holiday season?

This is important for evaluating whether you will feel exhausted and burned out at the end of the holiday season. Sometimes, the fear of missing out causes us to say, “yes,” to the things that are not important to us. Instead, we can choose to evaluate which activities are most important and will feel the most meaningful at the end of the holiday season.

The Boundaries

In your dysfunctional family, you can probably identify that one person that really knows how to push your buttons. It may go a step further and there may be people who always make you feel like you are the “crazy” person or the “problem” child. Leaving the thoughts of whether you really are “the problem” aside, what is it like to spend time with people who make you feel less than?

If you find that it would be very difficult for you to avoid these people altogether, how can you use boundaries to take back some of your control of this situation? This can look like a number of things:

  • Remind yourself that you are choosing to spend time with these family members. No matter how much you might feel obligated, it is always your choice to engage. Approaching situations with a sense of, “this is my choice,” can often help you combat the feelings of powerlessness when you are confronted by someone.
  • Which topics are off-limits for you? Relationship status, career success, religion and politics can all be touchy subjects in families. When these topics come up in conversation, determine ahead of time how you will approach them, what you will say, and when you will walk away from the conversation.
  • Is there a way to limit your interactions with someone? If you have been estranged from a family member for a significant amount of time and things are still left unresolved, spending 5 consecutive days with them is guaranteed to increase your stress. Instead, is there a way to see them for a limited amount of time without causing yourself and others more stress?

Navigating family relationships can be tricky. If you find yourself feeling unsure about your course of action, or you worry if you really are “the problem”, a therapist can help you determine a new way to approach your family. Call today to increase your understanding of your family relationships and decide how best to interact with them, not just at the holidays, but all year long.

Written by therapist Clair Miller

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