As the holidays near, many of us feel an array of emotions about gathering (or not gathering) with extended family. For some, gathering all together brings a sense of nostalgia, delight, and excitement to be together. For others, feelings of anxiety, guilt or shame come to the surface as well. Family dynamics are often challenging to navigate as we move through different seasons of life. If you feel the tension build as you anticipate being with extended family this year, you are certainly not alone. If this rings true for you, here are some tools and encouragement as you head into this holiday season.
Offer yourself compassion
Sometimes we feel shame that after all this time we still struggle to be together. Haven’t we gotten past this? Is this still where we are? Am I 15 again?! The truth is, the people we grew up with shape us deeply. Unhealthy patterns of interaction often begin and end in the family we grew up with. You may have worked hard to live differently and revert to the old patterns when you are with family again. Family is the “last frontier” of healthy change. If possible, remember your family as fellow human beings who have also been wounded and struggled in this fallen world and act the way they know how to right now. Everyone makes sense in the context of their story.
Take time to reflect on where things have fallen apart in the past. Do certain topics or interactions predictably light the fire? Naming these predictions ahead of time can help lessen the shock or dismay when it happens again.
Make a plan
Once you have an idea of what to expect, think about what boundaries you need and have a plan for taking care of yourself in these moments. If things escalate, you could step away to get a drink of water, go for a walk, or spend time alone to re-group. Have a response in your back pocket for touchy subjects that might come up. For example: “I’m not comfortable talking about this.” “I’m happy to talk about this once we have both calmed down.” “I need to get some air for a minute.”
Give yourself permission
You get to choose who feels safe to be with. Maybe you have experienced abuse and being around your abuser feels unbearable. Give yourself permission to keep your distance, set boundaries, and do what you need to do. The only people who don’t like our boundaries are the ones who are used to violating them.
Give yourself space
The holidays often bring up feelings of grief as well. How can you honor the object of your loss and give yourself space to grieve? Is there a ritual or time you can set aside to reflect on what this person or loss means to you? Sometimes we are afraid to let these feelings come to the surface because we think we will drown in them, and it will be all-consuming. However, letting yourself feel painful emotions lessens their power over you, and healing can come.
Wherever you find yourself this Christmas season, remember you are loved, and you are not alone. We have a God who sees us, our families, our pain, and our brokenness and he came in compassionate love to meet you right where you are.
This article is part 2 of a two-part article. If you missed part one, check it out HERE. Hosting the Holidays with Extended Family was written by Jennifer Helton.