Holiday Survival Guide

By Jonathan Hart, LPC

For some people, holidays are good times with good friends and healthy family connections. For others, when we think of the holidays, our blood pressure inexplicably begins to rise, and instead of thinking how wonderful things will be, we think, “Oh, crap. Here we go again.”

For many, family gatherings can be a time of guilt and frustration, fraught with conflict, tension, and heartache. The holidays can be confusing. “Why is this so hard? Is it supposed to be like this? That’s just how they are, I need to get over it… but I can’t!” We’re left exhausted and spent when the holidays are over. We feel like we need another holiday to recover from all the stress.

If this is what the holidays feel like for you, then there are larger issues in play than this article has space to deal with. There are ways of meaningfully engaging with these relationships and truly seeking healing. These ways often take a long time to understand and implement. While these have value, this close to the holidays is not the time to begin digging down into the mess. Dig in after New Years’, but don’t wait too long, or you’ll be right back here again next year.

Here are some down-and-dirty strategies to survive the looming holidays without making them worse (much).

  1. Don’t stay in the house. A significant amount of the stress during the holiday season comes from the fact that you’re staying at your family’s home for several days in a row. You don’t have your own space, you don’t have your own things, and you don’t have anywhere to go. You’re underfoot and bumping into each other 24/7. If you can stay at a hotel, at least you’ll have an island of calm to return to when you need to, and you have someplace to go when you feel overwhelmed. It’s worth the expense. (OK. I’ll admit it. Almost every time I have suggested this to someone, they have looked at me as though I have three heads. “Are you insane? Do you know what kind of storm that would provoke? They [usually Mom] would be mortally offended!” If this is the case for you, don’t sweat it. Go ahead and skip to number 2.)
  2. Plan “escape hatches” for yourself. If you simply must stay at the house with all sixteen siblings and their families, you’re going to need time to breathe. Plan something to do for yourself, and by yourself, outside the house each day. It can be anything: sightseeing, shopping, walking in a park or hiking a trail, even just driving around for an hour. Sometimes you have to get away in order to stay sane. And if someone says, “Oh! I’ll go with you!”… Turn. Them. Down.
  3. Maintain your normal schedule where possible. If the kids usually go to bed at 8:00, keep that rhythm. Eat at your regular meal times whenever possible. Keep your exercise routine. It’s impossible to do this completely, but try to keep some of the rhythms of your regular life wherever you can, even if it means stepping on some toes in small ways. You may get labeled as picky or demanding, but better that than losing your mind entirely.
  4. Carve out a space that is your own. If you have a bedroom to yourself, close and lock the door, even when you’re not in there, but especially when you are. For private conversations, turn on a small fan or sound machine outside your door. Find a spot – maybe even in the garage or the basement – that you can escape to without leaving the house. When you feel less out of control and more in charge of yourself, you’ll have more energy to handle the rest of the visit.
  5. Shorten your visit. Don’t stay the whole entire week. In the house. With ALL the people. This may amount to treason in your family, but sometimes you need to keep the old show business adage: Always leave them wanting more. Don’t sacrifice your entire soul for the sake of the holiday. Maybe just two-thirds of it.

These suggestions are not fixes. They are small patches for large problems. But trying some of these ideas can make a significant difference in how you experience the holidays. Who knows? You might just be able to do a little actual celebrating of your own when it’s all said and done.


Photo Credit: Libby Penner on Unsplash