3 Strategies to Survive the Holidays & Thrive All Year

3 Holiday Survival Strategies to Help You Thrive All Year Long

Greetings! In Episode 12 of The Baltimore Annapolis Psychotherapy Podcast (click here to listen) I discussed reasons why the holidays are hard for many of us. Rather than being the most joyful time of the year, November through February is often the most stressful time of the year. If that resonates for you, then keep reading. I'm going to give you three easy strategies for surviving the holidays which you can use every day. 

The holiday season is supposed to be a time of joy and light, but memories of loved ones who aren't there can bring painful emotions to the surface. Feelings of loss related to wishing for a happier childhood frequently arise at this time of year.

And for those of us who experienced feeling unwanted, abandoned, ignored, overlooked, or not (good/pretty/smart/successful/loved/rich/thin...fill in the blank)  _______ enough in our childhood and teenage years, gathering with family can be more painful than fun. Unspoken resentment and unresolved tension interfere with the closeness and loving warmth we wish for. Read on below to learn how to get through it with your sense of well-being intact.

Survive and Thrive This Holiday Season!

Holiday Survival Strategies:

It's a stressful time of year for many reasons, but to get through it feeling connected to your values, in control and emotionally safe, these three strategies can help.

1. Set Boundaries.

Do you know what it means to set boundaries? The best way I know to explain boundaries is this: Setting boundaries means defining what is okay and what is not okay for you. Here's how it works:

For example, let's say you always gather with your extended family at your mother's house for Christmas. You want to go because it's your family tradition and it's the only time your whole family gathers together. However, your relationship with your mother is strained and you feel uncomfortable being around her. She wasn't really there for you emotionally when you were little and you aren't close with her now. She is critical of you to your face and talks about you negatively behind your back to your siblings. Furthermore, things usually get ugly after dinner when people have been drinking and the sarcastic remarks, passive-aggressive comments and criticism start coming out. Last year you and your uncle got into a huge argument and it hasn't been addressed since you stormed out that night.

Survive the holidays and thrive all year

You plan to attend this annual ritual this year as always, but you're having mixed emotions. Part of you is hoping that this year will be different, that your mom will be kind and loving toward you and that you and your uncle will get along better. But another part of you is feeling really anxious about going, with the dread increasing daily. You feel you have only two options: go and be miserable or stay home and feel guilty. Here's how to set boundaries:  

First, ask yourself what you need. This can be difficult if you usually make decisions based on what other people need and want, rather than your own thoughts and feelings. Consider that you have many options to choose from, and pick one that feels right to you. You may decide to stay home and not attend the gathering at all. Or maybe you would prefer to go, but not hang around after dinner when things start getting wild. Would it feel better to talk to your uncle beforehand and clear the air about what happened last year? Maybe you'd like to talk to your mom about visiting her on a different day around the holidays, when there is less stress and tension. You can choose how you want to show up - literally and figuratively - for this event. Let your own thoughts and feelings be your guide. It may be helpful to discuss your feelings with a trusted friend or journal about it. Once you've come up with a plan for how you want to deal with the issue of attending the family gathering, talk to your mom about your plans. Let her know what you will be doing this year by speaking directly and without anger. If setting boundaries is new for you, it may be helpful to practice saying this in a mirror so you can feel more confident. And if this is a new communication style within your family your mom may balk at hearing that your plans are different from the usual tradition. That doesn't mean you are wrong to speak up for what you need. Communicating directly and speaking your truth in a loving way is not wrong. In fact, it's because you love your family (and yourself) that you want to find a way to attend an important event that feels right for you, so you and your can family enjoy being together.  This is true year round, not only during the holidays.

2. Manage Your Expectations.

As mentioned above, sometimes we have ideas about how we hope things are going to be when we interact with our families. We have these ideas even though we've had decades of experience interacting with family members, and the communication may not have changed over all those years. So there's a fantasy of how you want things to be, and then there is the reality of how it's more likely to go. Knowing this, it can be helpful to anticipate issues which might arise and plan for how you will deal with them if they happen.

For example, although you wish your mom would be kind, loving and supportive toward you this Christmas, the reality is that she doesn't communicate that way (even if she has those feelings on the inside). You can't control her behavior. What can you control? Anticipating what might trigger you during the visit helps you plan ahead, which allows you to feel more in control. For one thing, you can plan for how you might address it if your mother is critical of you.  On the other hand, if you are caught up in the fantasy of this idealized, perfect family visit, that criticism feels more hurtful because you're surprised and disappointed that things didn't go the way you hoped they would.

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This is also a chance to set boundaries. Ask yourself what you need. What would you like to tell your mom about what is okay and what is not okay with you? Maybe you decide that when she begins criticizing you, you will leave. You can also try ignoring her or changing the subject when the criticism starts. Or you can address it with her directly. How you go about it is up to you, but you have the right to set boundaries with your family so you can feel emotionally safe. Especially if your family of origin was abusive, you owe it to yourself and to your children, if you have them, to set boundaries. Children are stuck in these family conflicts with little to no power over what happens. They're depending on you to keep them safe.

Maybe Uncle Freddie gets drunk every year at dinner and begins yelling at his daughter, your cousin Annie. As much as you hate seeing him do this every year, you feel powerless to do anything about it. Again, you can't control his behavior, but knowing that this is likely to happen you can plan for how you will handle it. It is okay to leave the room when you feel uncomfortable, and you can be as direct as you like in explaining your reason for doing so. When others are behaving inappropriately or abusively you don't owe them an explanation, but you can still excuse yourself without being hurtful if you've anticipated what might come up and how you'll handle it. Setting boundaries with love can help you maintain the relationships you value without feeling as if you are tolerating being mistreated. Once again, managing your expectations about your interactions with family members is something you can do year round. 

3. Practice Self Care. 

Self care is another concept which we often hear about but don't always understand. Self care means treating yourself the way you'd treat someone you love. So you don't have to subject yourself to doing what you've always done for the holidays if you don't enjoy it. What would make you feel good during this time of year? This can be a good time to catch up on rest and relaxation. If it's a particularly sad, painful time for you, allowing yourself to feel your emotions and finding ways to comfort yourself can help. As suggested above, ask yourself what you need. Tune into what your body and mind are telling you and let that be your guide. 

Do you give yourself time to feel your feelings, or are you more likely to push through and try to ignore feelings which may get in the way of you completing everything on your to-do list? Practicing self care can be as simple as making time to eat when you are hungry, rather than skipping meals in favor of attending to other responsibilities. Stopping work to go to the bathroom is an act of self care. Getting enough sleep at night is part of a self care practice. Setting boundaries, moving your body daily, taking time to read for pleasure, listening to music, walking in nature, soaking in a hot bath, meditation, spending time doing things you love - all of these are examples of self care. What does self care look like for you? 

I write frequently about self care and talk about it on The Baltimore Annapolis Psychotherapy Podcast. Here are several articles I've written on this subject.

Laura Reagan, LCSW-C

Therapists Share Their Self Care Tips 

Rethinking Self Care

How Self Care Helps Me Succeed In Business

Using Self Care to Nourish Your Soul and Fall In Love With Yourself

Self Care Apps Recommended by Therapists

Using Self Care to Prevent Burnout

Hopefully these will help you understand why you deserve to make self care an important part of your routine. And if the sadness you feel this time of year is not going away, consider getting in touch with me (if you're in Maryland) or another therapist to get started feeling better. You might be surprised how much better you can feel.

If you’d like to talk to me about working together click here or send me an e-mail at laura@laurareaganlcswc.com. You can reach me by phone at (443) 510-1048. For more from me, sign up for my occasional newsletter! I don’t send them out unless I have something I want you to know, and you can unsubscribe any time you want. You can also follow me onTwitterFacebookPinterestInstagram and Google+. To listen to my weekly podcast, search the Baltimore Annapolis Psychotherapy Podcast on iTunes, Stitcher and (coming soon) Google Play. Or click here to listen via my website. 

I wish you peace this holiday and a joyful New Year!


Laura Reagan, LCSW-C