Tis the season for many things: apple pies, warm sweaters, cinnamon candles, eating too much, and spending time with loved ones. Thanksgiving is one of our most family-centric holidays, kicking off a season of celebrations, parties, and dinners. We travel more around Thanksgiving than any other time of the year and it’s hard to imagine not going home or seeing family for Thanksgiving unless you are deployed.
But the holiday season can be a difficult time when “family” and “home” symbolize more pain than comfort. If you come from a family where emotional or physical abuse were part of your story, those Hallmark cards and movies can feel like a bad joke. In a family marked by narcissistic relatives, sitting around the holiday table was an invitation to be criticized for everything you ever did wrong, how fat you look in those pants, or how much better your cousin did in her last semester than you did.
Maybe going home for the holidays wasn’t exactly Holiday Hell, but it was uncomfortable enough that the idea of doing it every year fills you with dread. You want to enjoy the holiday season, or at least get through it without stabbing anyone with a shrimp fork. Read on for three tips to survive the holidays with your sanity—and your loved ones—intact.
1. Budget your time
Decide in advance how much time you want to devote to whatever family events you plan to attend. How much time do you want to spend with your nuclear family (partner, children)? Do you want to have Thanksgiving dinner with your parents, or alone with your fiancee? Do you want to go Black Friday shopping with your mother-in-law, or invite her over for brunch after she finished her earlybird mall run?
Having a plan ahead of time makes it easier for you to graciously decline last-minute invitations and stick to the boundaries you set on your time. And remember: an invitation is not a command appearance. If you choose to decline an invitation, the invitee may be disappointed or hurt, but feeling hurt is not the same as being harmed.
2. Have an escape plan
If your family history informs you that things usually go south about an hour after dinner, be ready to leave shortly after you clear your plate. If the heated political debates start over hors d’oeuvres, plan to show up right before dinner is served. Do what is within your power to work around the hot button topics and tricky timing, and don’t be afraid to make an early exit if things start to go sour. Think about when you want to leave, and do your best to stick to your plan. If friends or family try to pressure you to stay, smile and let them know you appreciate the thought but you need to get on to walk the dog/put the baby to bed/visit the next family event/water your plants/whatever works.
3. Do something you love—for you.
Sometimes family visits bring up feelings of obligation and resentment, especially when you sacrifice time that you’d rather spend elsewhere. You can reduce the resentment by setting aside time to do something special for yourself. Plan a Friendsgiving, get a massage, go see a new movie, or just soak in a hot bath. Take time to unwind and decompress after a visit, or do something fun before you go. Make sure to give yourself time with people who love and support you.
Special note: If your family of origin is abusive in the present, consider giving yourself permission not to go home. You don’t have to continue taking abuse to prove your loyalty to your family or to gain approval from people who can’t give the unconditional love you deserve. Be gentle with yourself, and consider starting a new Thanksgiving tradition where you only gift your time to people who truly appreciate it. Your time and your presence are valuable. Give them to those who will treasure you!
Photo by Joanna Kosinska