The holidays are supposed to be a time of family, togetherness, unity, peace, love… You get the idea.
But what if the way your family celebrates actually hurts you, or makes you feel unimportant or devalued?
As cheery as the holidays can be, they can also be trying for families with diverse sets of values. When parents, siblings, cousins and friends who haven’t seen each other for most of the year end up sharing a space, differing points of view can quickly surface.
“It’s not that these clashes pop up out of nowhere in December,” said Shainna Ali, a mental health clinician, educator and advocate. “These are the things you’ve been thinking about for the entire rest of the year. They just weren’t being talked about.”
Many of these clashes are related to highly personal opinions, like religious differences or political views, said Hilary Jacobs Hendel, a psychotherapist, author and speaker. For example, a nonbinary child coming home to a family that refuses to use their pronouns, or an atheist child who isn’t comfortable going to an annual religious service.
Even the tradition of exchanging gifts can be uncomfortable for people who experienced unhealthy family dynamics surrounding guilt or shame and gift-giving.
No matter how close or distant you are with your family, they can hit you where it hurts — even if they don’t mean to.
On a neurobiological level, we are far more sensitive to hurt, aggression or misunderstandings from family, Hendel said.
“Emotions triggered by family interactions have great power to automatically send us back in time to how we felt as children,” she said. “It’s how the brain works. The brain and the body remember our childhood wounds very well.”
If family gatherings are difficult for you, but you haven’t been able to figure out why, it might be helpful to gather some data on your emotional and physical reactions.
Hendel recommends paying attention to the moments you’re feeling angry or irritable, ruminating on conversations or making a lot of judgements about other people.
“You might actually be experiencing anxiety, guilt, shame or some primary emotion like anger, sadness or fear,” she said.
Visceral reactions can also be key indicators that an experience is making you uncomfortable, Ali said.
“You might feel tense or sick to your stomach,” she said. “It helps to have that awareness, and the more we are self-aware, it gives us the sense that we are able to manage more.”
What’s the first step in making a change in the way you celebrate or approach holiday gatherings? Ali suggested taking some personal time to reflect on and identify your core values.
“If you know your core values or personal code, you’ll be able to make sense of a clash when it happens,” Ali said. “If we don’t know our core values, then we might be triggered and we might not even know why… and that can be a really inundating experience.”
She explained that this process of reflecting and identifying core values includes honing your self-awareness and clearly discerning your boundaries.
If you feel safe enough to talk about these with your family, go for it. If not, lay them out for your partner, a trusted friend or a therapist.
The first time you assert your need to stay home from midnight mass or refrain from exchanging gifts, the conversation can be intimidating.
Role-playing with a friend or talking through the convo with your therapist can be helpful, Hendel said. When you have the conversation with your family, keep in mind there’s a subtle but important difference between talking about a decision you’ve made and seeking approval or permission, she said.
Ultimately, if your family is toxic to your health and wellbeing (i.e. violent or abusive), give yourself permission to not spend the holidays with them until that changes.
If some of your family traditions are no longer safe or healthy for you to participate in, Hendel recommends creating your own alternative traditions and inviting family or friends to participate.
“We can redeem old traditions with new traditions,” she said. “Invite people over and say, ‘I’m going to do this every year.’ Just celebrate and be present with whoever shows up. Even if some family members don’t show up for a few years, maybe they will eventually.”
Traditions help us stay connected, and the ones you create can become just as special to you as family traditions used to be.
“Traditions can give us a bond,” she said. “They help to give us a little bit of a family history, create lasting memories and reflect on past generations… Plus, they can be enjoyable ways to spend time together.”
Kelsey Yandura is a freelance writer, editor and journalist based out of wherever the nearest library is (usually Denver).