Surviving the Holidays
When you love your family but don’t like them.
Surviving the Holidays
Maybe someday I’ll stop being surprised by how quickly each year goes by, but not yet. It feels like yesterday we moved into our new house in our new town, I blinked, and now Thanksgiving is just a couple weeks away.
And I get as excited as anyone else about the holidays – time with family and friends, Christmas trees and lights, real down time to rest and reflect a little on the past year… and hopefully, maybe a little snow. There’s a reason it’s called the most wonderful time of the year. It’s magical.
For some, however, the holidays bring on an amount of anxiety that not everyone will understand. For some, the thought of mixing in with extended family again is incredibly stressful.
So stressful, that it’s hard to think about anything else, and while you might find yourself once again hoping this year will be better, those dreams are quickly replaced with a reality that has become all too familiar.
The truth is, for the past 10 years, I have had a strained relationship with parts of my extended family, which has made visits stressful, anxiety-inducing events for me. While there have been some good years here and there and I love them very much, most of the time I had to suck it up and make the best of it, usually considering it a fairly miserable experience.
After each Christmas as we drove away, I could literally feel the stress leaving my body, but it was always replaced with frustration over the fact that it wasn’t at all how I wanted things to be for my immediate family.
Two years ago, I made the decision that our family Christmases were no longer going to be difficult and miserable. For me, that meant drawing a line and changing the rules, reminding myself that I was an adult with my own family, and it didn’t have to be this way.
But how do we do this without hurting feelings? How do we show the love of Christ to the difficult (or even unhealthy or unsafe) people in our world during what is supposed to be the most wonderful time of year?
Here are the most helpful things I’ve learned in dealing with difficult family members.
Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries.
Decide before you go how much you will let another person’s words, actions, and behaviors affect you. You cannot control their behavior, but you can most certainly control yours. Do your best to be kind and polite, but make a point to stay near the safe people as much as possible. For me, that means sticking close to my husband and kids, and enjoying time with them.
Keep yourself zipped up emotionally.
This probably sounds like the opposite of how we should have to be around family, and it is, but hear me out. In difficult family situations, I remind myself to rise above the mess. When I don’t react to a snide or hurtful comment, peace rules. I know that their opinions don’t define me and aren’t the truth, so I choose to let it all bounce off.
Is it hard? Brutally. But if I do react, they win and it makes a hard day even harder. This is truly a “turn the other cheek” opportunity that the Lord will honor. I promise.
Choose a word or phrase to repeat to yourself all day long.
For me, that phrase is “Break the cycle. Crush it.” When I remind myself that it’s just one day, not forever, and think about the hard but rewarding work that has gone into creating a different life for my husband and children, it’s easier to let things go.
When in the middle of an uncomfortable situation, mentally repeating your phrase will help until you have the time and energy to deal with the situation and how you really feel about it. This also prevents a reaction that you’ll probably regret later.
Set time limits.
Before you go, decide what time you are leaving. Have your exit strategy ready and stick to it. Remind yourself that you are an adult with the right to set limits on how much time you will spend around the people who are difficult. You’re in charge, so don’t allow yourself to be pushed around or guilted into staying longer than you need to. Pay your respects, express thanks for the meal, gifts, and time together, and then leave with a smile on your face.
Be intentional about kindness.
Holiday gatherings can cause stress because of who might be there and the unhealthy dynamics that will likely ensue, but if you’re nervous or dreading it, it’s even more important to be prepared. This is your opportunity to show the love of Jesus, even if it is extremely hard to do so. If you rise above it all and are kind and caring, it will go so much further in creating change than matching their hurtful comments with your own. Surprise them with kindness and you’ll go far. In the spirit of complete transparency, I recognize that I’m not always the easiest person to be around, and could very well be a source of stress for someone else. So if I’m intentionally kind in how I treat those around me, their preconceived worries are hopefully dispelled, and that takes a lot of pressure off the day.
Focus on the good.
No matter what situation awaits you this holiday season, focus on whatever good you can find, because it’s out there somewhere. There is always something to be thankful for, even if it’s something as simple as getting to eat your favorite dessert, seeing the joy on your sweet niece’s face when she opens your gift, or running into an old friend in your hometown. Maybe that good is found in celebrating how far the Lord has brought you in spite of that hard thing you’ve had to live through… that right there is enough.
You might have read this so far and are thinking there’s no way these helpful suggestions will work for you. Please keep reading… this next part is for you.
I’ve spent the bulk of the past 10 years doing all six of those things in order to make the holidays as easy as possible. But as I’ve grown older and started to notice more and more unhealthy patterns that were affecting my mental health, how I parented, and how I treated our marriage, it became abundantly clear that I had to move beyond the steps above. I had to walk away, choosing my sanity and immediate family’s happiness instead.
That decision came after much prayer and seeking wise counsel, and was by far the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do. Through all of it though, the Lord has stuck close, teaching me how to still honor the people who have caused hurt, and He is currently teaching me how to forgive and not let bitterness rule my heart. I’m not there yet, but am trusting that with His help, I’ll get there.
So often He has had to take the reins when I knew there was no way I could respond in a positive way, and has shown me how to do just that. Honestly, there have been times I have not handled it well, lost my temper, said things I can’t take back. I’m doing the hard work now to make sure that doesn’t happen again.
For me, it was a mental/verbal abuse situation that I finally chose to walk away from, but for so many of you, I know there are much worse things you are dealing with. Please hear my heart here: this is not how God wants you to live. Being a Christian doesn’t make you a doormat. You can say no and make healthy changes, and you can do it all while still showing the love of Christ.
Thanksgiving and Christmas are not exactly what I pictured they’d be these days. I want nothing more than to be surrounded by my entire family, to have a loving, easy, relaxing holiday season with them. I pray every day for this very thing, and am trusting God to fix what I can’t. But in the meantime, I’m choosing to focus on what is right in front of me: the people He has so graciously blessed me with under my own roof, and the other loved ones He has surrounded me with, because He has gone above and beyond to help fill the void.
For the first time in a long time, we are putting down deep, healthy, life-long roots, and it’s the best feeling and such an answer to prayer. He is faithful, friends… so very faithful, and although it’s different than what I thought it’d be, I can once again picture the type of holiday experience I have prayed for, and can’t wait for it to get here.
Focus on the good, do your best to handle the not-so-good, and remember this isn’t forever. Just remember Who you belong to, and you can’t go wrong.
Happy Thanksgiving and Merry Christmas – may it be better than you ever dreamed it could be.
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