How to Survive a Dreaded Family Holiday through Self-Care

Sometimes we dread going home for holiday visits. It’s a hard thing to admit sometimes. We feel we ought to look forward to seeing our families, to eating good food and sharing stories together. But right alongside that hope is a sinking dread. The dread can rear its head even as we plan our trips.


    • We budget the time we’ll spend with specific family members
    • We anticipate difficult conversations we’ll run into
    • We avoid conflict by presenting ourselves in a certain way during the trip


Usually we peg our dread of the holiday visit on one culprit. Maybe you can picture this person now. The person that gets under your skin. The person you wish wouldn’t show up, or would act differently. “If only”, you tell yourself, “this person didn’t come, or didn’t do their normal antics, I could actually enjoy the holiday.”


Certainly there’s truth to this desire. However, as you go into your holiday visits, I want to broaden our understanding of why family visits are hard. I want to help you open up more compassion and empathy for yourself, and to maybe consider a different way of approaching a family visit that helps you actually take steps forward in your own self-care, rather than feeling stuck in family drama.



Why family visits during the holidays are painful


Neurology and child psychology teach us that our brains are formed by our early environment. Our ways of thinking, feeling, soothing, solving conflict, etc. are all forged from interactions with our caregivers when our brains were still forming between age 0 and 25.


To return to those family relationships for the holidays is also to return to the epicenter of the pain you’ve experienced in your early life. It’s a return to familiar experience that you had no power to control. Like when, for example, Mom draws attention to herself, and you feel pressure to go along to make her feel important. Or when Dad withdraws, passively leaving you in charge when you’re already feeling overwhelmed.


Because families tend to keep their roles and patterns, these are likely the same pains you experienced over and over throughout your life. They may remind you of a time when you were dependent and had to fit these constraining roles. They can also remind you of the same insecurities, depressiveness, or anxiety that follow you in your daily life.



Trying to fix family visits


To avoid the pain of visiting family for the holidays, it’s common to try to fix the family.  Instead of being stuck in the same family pain, we want to try something – anything – to make it go differently.


These efforts to change family patterns is like trying to steer a cruise ship with an oar. Often it’s frustrating, retraumatizing, and exhausting. Even those who “succeed” at changing the family dynamic can come away feeling resentful.


Exploring family visits


So what then can you do?


I’d like to invite you to a different way to approach family gatherings this holiday. Let’s break it down into a few steps: find a safe space, explore, reflect.


1. Find a safe space


The first step to getting through the family holiday is to set up a safe space for yourself. You’ll need times you can come up for air and take a breath. Start by mapping out the family time. Here are some questions you might ask yourself:


    • “Which family members will be the most overwhelming to me?”
    • “What times will be the most overwhelming for me?”
    • “What demands will fall on me and when?”


For every stressful time, block out a period of time before or after that will be for you to collect yourself. This is called passive processing, and it helps us return to calm again. Passive processing means reducing demands, tasks, and simply letting your mind wander until it feels less overwhelmed. You might go on a walk, find a quiet chair to sit in, or listen to music.


Having a safe space set up for yourself can help you enter into the drama of family with less turbulence. It can be helpful simply to know that you have time carved out for yourself to recoup.


2. Explore


Instead of trying to fix the family, I recommend exploring the family patterns. Imagine you are an observer, a sleuth, an anthropologist – a role that helps you to passively understand the pain in the family. Here are some questions you might ask yourself as you enter into the family interactions:


    • “What is my role in the family?”
    • “How does the family deal with conflict and intimacy?”
    • “What unspoken demands are made of different members in the family?”
    • “What do I notice I feel throughout our family time?”


3. Reflect


When we try to avoid the pain of the family gathering, we can also miss important parts of our own journey. The feelings that are evoked during a family interaction are important information. This information tells you something about the pain you’ve experienced in your life. This is likely not the first time you’ve felt powerless, frustrated, depressed, or worried when you’re with family.


These feelings are a looking glass, and when we allow ourselves to reflect and lean in, we can grow in empathy and awareness. That empathy and awareness is what helps us to pivot, to make a conscious decision for how we want to live our lives now.


Family gatherings are difficult. As you plan your time, know that you have full permission to find a safe place to recharge. Family holiday visits can be a chance to grow in self-care, and to grow in empathy and compassion for yourself.