We started this month with Jamie’s Guide to Less Stressful Holidays, which was followed by Robin’s tips for fighting seasonal affective disorder. In this article, Desiree, Catie, Cathryn, Jamie, and Robin talk about the importance of self-care to your mental and physical well-being during the holiday season.

Desiree: I hid a lot from my family over the years. My sexuality, my feelings on sexism and racism, every thought on politics that’s ever crossed my mind. The fact that I’m uncomfortable around my abusive stepmother, the fact that I can’t stand the way my alcoholic mother drinks. I’ve hid a majority of my feelings from my family because that’s what you’re supposed to do, right? Make good and pleasant for the holidays because it’s family. It’s the holidays.

Well, this year I’m not doing that.

One thing I recommend to people going home for the holidays, if they can and feel comfortable, is to sit down with your families, or a specific family member and set boundaries. Just clear-cut, this-is-not-okay-behavior-with-me-anymore boundaries. Let them know, not only is this behavior not okay, if they continue to cross your now clear cut boundaries, you’ll cut ties with them. If they attempt to treat you like a child throwing a tantrum or make fun of your feelings, let them know that is exactly the type of behavior you won’t tolerate and leave. Remember, you don’t have to interact with family who make you uncomfortable just because they’re family.

Which brings me to my next tip—make sure you have a support system outside of your family or of family members you trust. It doesn’t have to be “real” people either, friends online can provide support, too. Someone you can vent to, help you calm down, talk you through an awkward dinner with the family or a confrontation, etc.

Having support and setting boundaries are how I’m planning to get through the holidays.

Catie: For me the key to a successful holiday visit is about pacing yourself. Especially now that I’m visiting from out of town, there’s a lot of pressure to do as many parties and see as many people as possible in the short time that I’m home. I’ve learned the hard way that pushing myself to my limits trying to do EVERYTHING just leaves me cranky, then subsequently guilty that I’m in a bad mood over the holidays seeing people I love.  

My main advice is just realize ahead of time that you’re going to need some downtime and try to make that happen. This can be hard if you’re staying with relatives, so if necessary scope out a coffee shop you can go to or plan to catch a movie. Maybe that can be a chill opportunity to see friends or just quiet time to yourself, but it can be a life-saver to avoid families driving you crazy.  

The other thing to realize is that it might not be possible to cram all you want to do in a few short days. At least for me, I can see a lot of family members at a few big parties, but friends are harder to meet up with. Everyone else is busy too, and sometimes it’s impossible to schedule around friends’ intersecting holiday obligations. If there are people you absolutely must see, try to touch base and make plans in advance. Things might still fall through, but pre-scheduling holiday cheer makes things much easier.  

Seriously, this is your holiday as much as anyone else’s. Don’t make yourself miserable by forcing yourself to be overly social or guilty if you can’t get to see everyone in a single, short visit.  

Cathryn: I’ve been particularly lucky in that my most recent holidays have been with my in-laws, whom are pretty relaxed and understanding. That said, there are a few things I try to keep in mind:

  1. Don’t over-promise yourself. If you want to interact on the holidays, help out and the like, but know you might feel overwhelmed at some point, offer to help, but in little ways. Don’t promise you’ll make three courses for seven people at a family dinner if you find cooking stressful, for example. But, maybe offer to contribute a dish to the potluck that’s in your comfort zone. I helped one year by making a dessert that my in-laws had never had before and was an easy recipe from my own family.
  2. Help in ways you can. Related to the former point, I don’t enjoy cooking—but I’m pretty damn good at wrapping presents, if I do say so myself. And I’m not bad at helping with the decorating. So when we go to my in-law’s for several days of Christmas fun, I help doing those things. I can do them relatively well, and I find them calming, so everyone wins!
  3. Don’t take that shit. Similar to Desiree, I’ve gotten to the point in my life where I just don’t have the time or energy for people making certain comments and just letting them slide. I’m tired, for one, of being called “over-sensitive,” which means whoever said something that hurt my feelings doesn’t have to feel like there are consequences to just saying shit. With my in-laws, they get it. They’ve known people with depression before, so I don’t need to explain it to them. My own family, on the other hand, has never genuinely experienced it outside of me. They are used to relatives that milk their mental illness for attention and “get out of jail free” cards. So there are times when I have to be firm with my mother when she makes comments because the only exposure she has had to mental illness has been largely negative and attention-seeking. She was certainly stunned the first time I firmly told her: “No, that’s wrong and I’m not letting you think that’s okay to say.” She wasn’t hurt—not by my words anyway. I think she genuinely questioned herself for it. But if the family you’re with doesn’t take your comments thoughtfully? If they don’t respect your boundaries and feelings? Then you might want to consider that they are not the family to spend your holidays with. It’s harsh, but which is worse—staying away from a potentially toxic situation, or willfully throwing yourself into one because someone else says “deal with it”?
  4. Do what makes you feel good, and don’t let someone else make you feel bad. Say you’re having a low day and sometimes, that mucks up plans. Hey, it happens! You’re feeling bad enough as it is, so don’t let someone else make you feel guilty because of it. You know what I mean here. Someone just doesn’t get it and is “uh, will you just lighten up already?!” If you start to feel bad, just ask yourself this: if someone had asthma and it was acting up, would someone make them feel guilty and/or force them to do an activity? No. So don’t let them do it to you either! They don’t have to get it; they just have to respect it.

Jamie: I don’t  see my blood family for the holidays. It never goes well. Inevitably there’s a fight. As the fighting got worse, mom used the old “I thought this year would be different!” on us, as if a guilt trip could undo years of dysfunction.

The last time I visited my family for Thanksgiving, my sister misinterpreted something I said and blew up like Pele. She has our father’s temper. It was like having him in the room. I reacted with fear and horror. I cried all the way home and for the next 3 days, only to have my mother say she wanted me to explain what had upset me.

Another visit resulted in my mother, who knows I suffer sleep apnea and depression growling at me, to get up. To her, I was just being lazy. Never mind I’d slept poorly sitting in a non-sleeper Astral seat.

That was the last time I spent with them. Friends and my boyfriend’s family are kinder to me, so that’s who I spend the holidays with.

Harry Potter, Mad Eyed Moody, Constant Vigilance memeYou have seen my point of view on the holidays and reducing stressors. That same advice applies here. When it comes to mental health and self care, you have to practice vigilance. It is really easy to fall into old, unhealthy patterns of behavior with your family. It can be very difficult to summon up the inner fortitude to stand up to an abusive or toxic relative. It can be frustrating to have the family insist on making nice for the holidays. It can be tough not to lash out when a family member makes a hurtful crack that they swear was only a joke.  

All of those things are gonna cost you spoons to deal with … or to swallow and work out later in your own way on your own time. Keep tabs on your state so you can bow out if you find warning lights going off in your head.  

Keep your coping methods close. Make sure your support group’s info is in your device for emergencies, and be careful not to indulge in self-medicating or self-destructive habits when the pressure begins to build. If you have mantras or methods to talk yourself down, use them without apology. Even if that means a walk around the block or a drive to a neighbor’s. Even if it means you need to catch a matinee at a theater just to have breathing room. Don’t let things build until you can’t cope. Work safety valves in so you don’t need to. If you have a self-help book that it helps to reread, get it on ebook and keep it on hand.  

What it comes down to is that unless you have an enlightened family (my sister and brother-in-law are good, but my mom is still hell to deal with in person, and I cut my father off altogether years ago), you already know you can’t depend on much sympathetic understanding. Gather your resources and use as needed. My  survival mantras are:

  • True, necessary, kind: anything I say should be at least two of these.
  • Never attribute to malice what can more easily be explained by stupidity/cluelessness.
  • How a person treats me is not a judgement on my value as a person. It’s a reflection of their relationship with themselves.
  • Do not contribute to elevating the stress level if avoidable.  

As has been already said, making a happy holiday means everyone should have fun. It is healthy to look out for yourself.  

Robin: Don’t post on Facebook that you’re coming home for the holidays. Seriously. In my experience, it results in dozens of people (many of whom I don’t really have any kind of relationship with or straight up don’t want to see) asking to spend time with me, and then I’m suddenly in the position of having to manage my social time and either turn down or spend time with people who I’m not actually dying to see. When I come back to my hometown, there’s two friends I’m interested in seeing (outside of my family). I text or call them and try to hang out with them when and if it’s possible, one-on-one. If done right, catching up with old friends is a really awesome experience and potentially a good vent for any bullshit you might be putting up with on the family front, not some kind of “social duty.”

I also second everything that’s been said above re: calling out verbal abuse or ignorant talk at the family dinner table. Just because somebody’s family doesn’t mean you owe them a pass on hate speech, and just because it’s the holidays doesn’t mean you ought to uphold some veneer of “civility” for the sake of others’ comfort. Don’t lash out or speak solely out of anger, but do try to understand, as Jamie said, that it’s more likely ignorance rather than evilness that’s making somebody say the horrible things they’re saying. Try to remember a time that somebody called you out on something, and if/how it ended up being a positive experience.

And ultimately, remember that you don’t owe your family anything. That sounds rough, I know, but that’s the reasoning behind many people continuing to subject themselves to terrible people who aren’t good for them. If holidays with your family are something you dread all year round, you don’t have to spend the holidays with your family. Seriously. Save the money and take a vacation instead. It’ll be much better for you.