Trauma Survivor’s Guide to the Holidays
How to navigate the holiday season
when going home may not be pleasant…or safe.
If you grew up in a home with addiction, abuse, or mental illness, you likely suffered a great deal of harm. Even when you are able to leave, your family relationships may still be an ongoing source of pain. This was certainly true for us. If it is true for you, the approaching holiday season may fill you with more dread than cheer. Here are some suggestions for keeping your sanity this holiday season.
The Holidays and “Family”
One of the central themes of the holiday season is our connection to others. Everywhere we look there are images of family togetherness that generate warm, happy feelings—cooking together, gathering around the table for a meal, sipping hot cocoa in the snow, opening presents in front of a roaring fire. The holidays are supposed to bring us together, connecting us nostalgically to the past through a string of happy family memories. For this reason, if people do not have close family relationships, the holidays can become a time of sadness. For people whose family members are a source of pain, the emotions can be more complex. There can be both a longing for warm relationships with parents or siblings, as well as grief, or a sense of loss, that those relationships do not exist. Many people experience anxiety, worrying well in advance about how to make the family events as pleasant as possible, knowing that it will be a difficult task.
How to Navigate Family and Preserve Your Sanity
Creating more peace around your contact with family over the holidays requires two things: knowing what you truly want, and establishing (and maintaining) boundaries around what you want. We suggest the following:
Question your holiday traditions. One of the joys of the holidays is having things to look forward to—activities you participate in every year. It might be baking certain cookies, or eating at a particular individual’s home. These often give us a sense of comfort, as well as excited anticipation. But if some of them cause you to worry in advance, or even dread their arrival, it may be time to think seriously about whether you should be doing them at all. Holiday traditions can seem like they are set in stone, but they are not. If you decide not to attend a particular event, or not to do everything you did last year, we promise you the world will not come to an end! We invite you to think very deliberately about what actually gives you joy, and to consider eliminating what does not. We all know that the holidays are a very hectic time. You can always explain your decision to family members by saying that you are trying to return a sense of balance to your holiday celebrations by not running yourself ragged, and ask that they respect your decision.
Set limits on the events you do attend. Perhaps you feel like you can’t cut something out of your holiday routine entirely without creating a fight in the family. It might still possible to participate in a way that minimizes the unpleasantness for you. You could attend only part of the event, perhaps coming for dessert but not the whole meal. You could reconsider your contribution. If you feel like your family is always criticizing the dish you bring to share, you could offer to purchase something the group will like, or contribute money to the host/hostess so they can provide something else as part of the meal.
Pick and choose who you see. We often feel pressure during the holidays to get the entire family together, but if there are some members that are not as supportive, or even hostile, try organizing smaller gatherings for just the people you truly feel warmly toward. It can be as simple as meeting for coffee or breakfast, or perhaps doing a cookie exchange in your home (you can even use store-bought cookies). The holidays are a great opportunity to cultivate the relationships that truly nurture you.
Go virtual. There are so many options now for connecting with people that do not require face-to-face contact. Technology had already made this possible, and living through the COVID pandemic has normalized this form of interaction. If the interactions become unpleasant or painful, it is very easy to leave. And again, it’s a great way to gather small groups of family that you feel truly connected to.
Stand up for yourself. The most important limit you can set is to clearly communicate what you will and will not accept from family members. If someone is abusing you, you are under no obligation to take it—even for the sake of keeping “peace” in the family. You should feel free to clearly state what you don’t like about what is happening, and if your boundaries are not respected, you should feel free to leave—immediately. If your family has a history of not respecting your boundaries, then you should consider not participating at all (see #1).
Above all, we encourage you not to knowingly subject yourself to pain. The holidays can pull at our heartstrings, with their promise of togetherness, love, and acceptance from our families. If your family is not able to offer you these things, it may be time to start new traditions of your own—without them.
We send You All our love, as you navigate your family relationships this holiday season.