AMK Counseling

How to Navigate the Holidays with Family

Megan Szudarski, MSW, LCSW

Holiday season is quickly approaching and for many of us, it may bring about a sense of excitement, stress, and even dread. Holidays may bring about financial stressors, agitate some of our winter blues, and leave us feeling burned out or overwhelmed by the responsibilities and expectations. We may even feel anxious around the increased family time. You are not alone. 

 Knowing this information, how can we be proactive and mentally and emotionally prepare ourselves for the holidays? 

  1. Manage your expectations. Are you hoping that this is the year when you finally have that ‘perfect’ holiday, where there’s no fighting, or let downs? It might be helpful for us to check that perfectionism a bit. Maybe the holidays aren’t about being perfect, maybe that doesn’t exist. Maybe we won’t have a super harmonious interaction with each family member. Maybe that’s okay. How can we find ways to examine and manage our expectations so we’re setting ourselves up for success going into the holiday season? 
  2. Set healthy boundaries. Identify your needs ahead of time. Do an internal check-in with yourself beforehand. How am I feeling– emotionally, mentally and physically? What do I need to feel rejuvenated and recharged?  Am I saying yes to things just to avoid feeling guilty? If I engage with this individual or with this situation, will I feel emotionally drained? Can I agree to only stay a few hours before I excuse myself versus spending the night(s)? What are my limitations? Can you lovingly redirect your attention to what YOU need and want to feel safe and secure, mentally, emotionally, and physically?
    • Prepare for pushback. Unfortunately, not everyone will understand your boundaries. Remind yourself that these boundaries are for YOU. Remind yourself of why they’re important to you and find a way to stand your ground, regardless of pushback. 
    • Respectfully and clearly communicate your boundaries. Use a calm and clear voice and communicate them when you’re not feeling activated. 
    • Be consistent and follow through with them so you send the message that you also respect your own boundaries and that you’re serious about them. 
    • Come up with an exit plan if your boundaries continue to be disrespected or disregarded. 
  3. Self-care and self-compassion. Saying ‘no’ or setting boundaries might feel uncomfortable and unfamiliar at first. Make sure that you’re providing yourself gentle reminders that you’re allowed to say ‘no’ and set boundaries. Speak to yourself in a kind and gentle way, using self-compassion, acknowledging whatever feelings are being brought up. The way we speak to ourselves can be a form of self-care. Self-care can also be taking a step back, forgiving yourself, spending time alone, asking for help, asking for what you need, and making yourself a priority. 
  4. Ground yourself. We might find ourselves feeling overstimulated by the stress or chaos that comes with the holidays or from being around family members with differing values, beliefs, personalities, etc. We might find ourselves feeling easily activated. Can we engage in some grounding practices throughout this time? Spend time in nature, engage in some deep breathing practices (​​10 Quick & Easy Breathing Exercises for Stress) , meditate, journal, engage your senses, give yourself permission to take a timeout when necessary, splash some cold water on your face, etc. How do you self-regulate when you’re feeling overwhelmed?
  5. Excuse yourself from activating interactions. Remember that you have a choice in what conversation you engage in, who you speak with, what you share, etc. Ask yourself what is in my control right now? If I’m put in an uncomfortable or emotionally activating situation, can I find a way to remove myself from the situation even if just temporarily to collect my thoughts and self-regulate? Can I respectfully vocalize my limits by saying, “I don’t feel comfortable discussing this right now” or “I’d rather not talk about that” and then pivot to a different topic? Identify your activation topics and come up with a plan to prepare for those ahead of time. 
  6. Don’t uproot all of your routines. Yes, you may not be able to follow them to an exact T, as likely your schedule will shift around the holidays; however, can you still manage to keep some things the same? Can you still make sure you prioritize that morning walk or that mindful bedtime ritual? Keeping aspects of our routine the same can help keep us grounded amidst change.

Yes, the holidays may be a stressful time, but they can also serve as a time for us to reflect, express gratitude, and practice identifying and advocating for our needs. Ask yourself what values are important to you during the holiday season and see if you’re able to incorporate those. It may be relaxation, inner peace, social connections, gratitude, etc. Work with your therapist to come up with a holiday plan so you can feel confident going into the holiday season.