1 Tip You Haven't Heard (Plus 6 More!) For Surviving the Holidays With Family

My friend asked me to facilitate a group workshop last week at a non-profit here in Nashville that provides mental health services to its clients. He asked that I share about "seasonal depression or coping with depression through the holidays." What I heard though was "strategies for dealing with family over the holidays"--slightly different topics and clearly indicative of where my mind was. Suffice it to say I had to do a little last minute re-tooling to be more on topic BUT both topics--seasonal depression and surviving the holidays with family--gave me a lot of food for thought. 

My therapist and I talk often about this strange thing that happens to people when they're around their families--you can take well-adjusted, seemingly self-actualized, serene people and plop them into a situation with their family of origin, and BAM, they unravel within hours. Why does this happen? Why do our brains revert to a person 
(and actions) we thought we'd abandoned long ago?

Unfortunately, I don't have enough space or degrees to begin answering these questions. I'd rather spend the rest of our time together sharing practical and practicable suggestions for handling tough family dynamics during the holidays while staying true to the person you are today. In fact, these can be used for any group setting; it doesn't have to be the holidays and the people don't have to be your family. 

1. Get in and get out.
Whether that means 30 minutes, five hours, or four days, have a plan and stick to it. Set expectations for yourself, e.g. "I will leave at 4:30," or "I will leave if it gets to be too much." And set expectations for others, e.g. "Aunt Sally, I'm looking forward to seeing you. I will be there at 3 but unfortunately have to leave by 7." People crave structure whether they know it or not. It's not your job to teach it to them, only to stay committed to your own.  


2. Make a self-care sandwich.
I'm an introvert and get my energy from being alone or in very small groups. I know this about myself, so in order to avoid taking my idiosyncratic personality traits out on them, I have to sandwich big family gatherings, vacations with friends, even just a large group outing to dinner, with actions before and after that ground me. This could include reading a book for 15 minutes, working out, cleaning something, or even taking a day off from work. The more your system will be taxed in a situation (think five day trip with the in-laws), the greater the actions will need to be that you take before and after to keep you in or restore you to a calm place. 

3. Watch yourself more than you watch others. 
I can get pretty judgmental when I'm around certain family members, which is ironic because the thing I dislike most about these particular individuals is how judgmental they are. Pot, kettle--now that we're all acquainted. My mentor tells me, "Kate, stay in your hula hoop." She also says, "Keep the focus on you." I can't control what others think, feel, say, or do. I can only watch myself to ensure I'm being true to the version of me I want to be. 

4. Give yourself enough time.
For me, I know nothing contributes more to an already tense or agitated state than feeling rushed or behind. If you're making Grandma's famous pecan pie for Thanksgiving don't wait until two hours before dinner to get started on it and then get upset when the kitchen is crammed full of people, the oven is in use, and you can't get any elbow room. Preparation soothes anxiety.

5. Give yourself enough space.
Space = sanity. For those venturing away from home during the holidays I would go so far as to say if it's not in the budget to get your own hotel room, strongly consider whether you really want to make the trip or not. That might be extreme, but remember, our families can bring out our most extreme personality traits. Why not give yourself the gift of a good night's sleep in a room that cleans itself and comes with breakfast? However, if this isn't feasible, then at the very least, ensure you're staying mindful of these other suggestions, especially #1. Do you really want to share bunk beds with Cousin Charlie for six days? Probably not, but you might be able to tolerate it for three.

6. Be of service.
When my grandfather passed away everyone piled into my grandmother's house. I remember feeling really uncomfortable and awkward. (What do I say? What do I do? Where do I stand?) So I started washing dishes. There were tons of people in the house so there were plenty to do--rinse the dishes, load the dishwasher, unload the dishwasher, put the dishes away--washing dishes became my lifesaver. When we're able to be of service to our families, whether our intention is to help or to get out of discomfort (or maybe a little of both), the outcome is the same: we're helping, we're focusing love and kindness towards others, we're keeping our minds occupied with a task.  

7. Drink more water.
This sounds like an odd one, but I swear it works. First, we could all stand to be a little more hydrated. Second, and more importantly, drinking more water gives you built-in, excusable breaks where you get to be entirely alone. The more water you drink, the more bathroom breaks you get to take. Someone bothering you? No problem! In 15 minutes you'll need to head to the bathroom again anyway. Take a few deep breaths, text a friend, say a quick prayer, do whatever you need to do find a moment of peace, then get back out there. I'd much rather be known for having a small bladder than a bad attitude. (WARNING: Do NOT substitute water for alcohol. I promise, it will not achieve the desired outcome!)

The holidays are stressful. People are walking around in heightened states of emotion strung out on sugar and spending. We can take care of ourselves through this. We can plan an exit strategy, be helpful, stay in our hula hoops, get a hotel room, whatever we need to do to be okay. Expect that everyone will be exactly as they were last year. YOU be different this year. And when all else fails, take a bathroom break.