Hurting at the Holidays? 7 Common-sense Strategies

Coping with your less-than-ideal family during the season of thanks and joy

It’s not even Thanksgiving, but Christmas is everywhere in New York City, as it has been since the day after Halloween.  I no longer dread the holidays the way I once did but the idealized image —of that big, happy, smiling family—still eludes me, as it did during my childhood and later.  For unloved daughters and sons, the stress of the holidays sweeps in much more than the nuisance of crowded stores, piped-in joys, worries about money or pleasing everyone with the right gift.

For many, it will conjure up—almost as if fresh and new—the pain, exclusion, and loss they felt in their families of origin. For women who continue to interact with their unloving mothers—for whatever reason—the holidays can throw all the stresses and pains of past and present into high relief. For those who have made the difficult and painful decision of going “no contact,” the holidays sometimes evoke a renewed sense of self-doubt about the decision made, along with a feeling of isolation.  The weight of cultural disapproval may feel heavier at this time of year.



Here’s what “Leah” (a pseudonym, as are all the others) writes me: “When I see friends and acquaintances looking forward to the holidays, having family over, going to visit family I feel sad because I don't have these opportunities or invitations in my life.  The holidays (Thanksgiving and Christmas) are my least favorite times of the year because they remind me how dysfunctional and disjointed my family is. I've worked hard to create my own family traditions for my family of three and try to stay focused on those. I tolerate November and December and breathe a big sigh of relief when January 1st rolls around and I get to start fresh. I can put the experience behind me for another year.”

“Not as bad as Mother’s Day," writes “Anne” who went no contact with her mother five years ago.  “For some reason, I take Mother’s Day more personally.  I spend the holidays with the family I’ve chosen for myself, not the one I was born into.  Yes, I feel sad at moments but it’s healthier and better this way. I don’t need to recover from Thanksgiving and Christmas the way I used to.”

So, as a fellow traveler (since I’m not a therapist), here are some strategies that might help you navigate the holidays with a little more ease—whether you’ve decided to spend them with your original family or have chosen to stay away.

1. Take an emotional inventory

With perfect 20/20 hindsight, I can now see that some of my misery, especially when I was younger, was due in part to my neediest self-showing up during the holidays, especially Christmas. And, of course, the needier I was, the more withholding and critical my mother was. Spend some time sorting out your feelings and identifying them. Is it anger you’re feeling or sadness? Do you feel vulnerable or needy?  Many unloved daughters are sensitive to slights or anything that smacks of rejection and those feelings may be heightened at this time of year. 

Keep in mind that there’s nothing you can do to change how others act or react, but there is much you can do about your own responses. Pay attention to your triggers. The more conscious and aware you are of your feelings—the more emotionally intelligent you are—the better off you’ll be.

2. Work on managing your thoughts and feelings

The coming months—when the earth goes fallow, the nights grow longer and days shorter —are, since ancient times, a time of reflection, of a journey into darkness before the rebirth of spring.  Just like our ancient forebears, who celebrated this time with rite and ritual, each of us responds to the challenges of the darkness and reduced daylight.  Remember that there’s a meaningful difference between “reflecting” on your thoughts and feeling and “ruminating” about them.  Rumination is a cycle of repetitious thoughts which can leave you sleepless or wake you up in the middle of the night; it can be a precursor to depression.  Pay heed to the difference, especially in this season.  Talk about your feelings with your friends and intimates which may make them easier to manage. Please seek the help of a professional or counselor if the tumble of thoughts starts getting in the way of your functioning or enjoyment. 

3. Set personal goals for yourself

You want to be as clear as you can be about what you want to get out of this holiday season. If you are attending a family function because you want to see someone specific or you are visiting your very difficult and critical mother because you’ve decided you want your children to know her, focus on what you intend to get out of the experience. Remind yourself that your mother doesn’t have the power she once had over you when you lived under her roof and that you aren’t helpless. If you are avoiding the drama and having your own holiday, focus on exactly that.  This is what “Anna” says in an email: “The holidays don't bother me anymore. I have my own family now with three wonderful kids that are now grown. We have our own traditions and have a blast together. Sure I think about Christmas' past, but only the positives. There are some bad memories there as well, but because that was the only time we ever got anything, the good is pretty easy to remember! I haven't spent Thanksgiving or Christmas with my mother for about 12 years now.”

4. Set boundaries ahead of time

It’s practical, not pessimistic, to anticipate the possible pitfalls at a family gathering.  Think about how you’ll react to various challenges—and what you will and won’t do. 

That’s precisely what “Clara” intends to try to do: “This year, my mother will be coming to “celebrate” Thanksgiving with my family and my in-laws. She hasn’t been here since 2010.  She always stays in a hotel and that is good. My main coping strategy is to try never to be alone with her. Once alone with her, her worst behavior shows up again—ranting about being a widow, being abandoned, ranting about you name it.  My goal this time is not to allow her to engage me. She is looking for a fight at all times because being angry fuels her. But it is hard, especially when she goes after me in her classic passive-aggressive manner. It enrages me and I have to fight to not respond.” If something is said or done that triggers a response, there’s nothing wrong with simply saying, “I don’t want to talk about that now” or leaving the room if you must.  Do whatever you need to do so as not to get engaged in old patterns.

5.  It’s okay to disengage

Many daughters feel enormous pressure not just to make the holidays perfect but feel responsible for everyone’s happiness, even their mothers’.  If you’ve done the work of setting goals and delineating boundaries, you will already realize that you don’t have a magic wand at hand to make the holidays conform to the culture’s rosy expectations. Do what you can not to fall into the trap of trying to “fix” things on the spot; disengage if you need to. If you end up in a one-on-one conversation and your mother starts goading you and saying hurtful things, stay out of the fray, and back out.  Again, this isn’t about being rude or abrasive; it’s simply realizing that there’s nothing to be won by going into battle again. Invite someone else to join you, switch the conversation up or change the focus, and try to keep it relatively “light.”

6. Be kind to yourself

This time of year—traditionally one of family “togetherness”—makes many people feel isolated and alone, as if they are the “only” ones whose families fall short of those idealized commercials and images the culture bombards us with.  Similarly, unloved daughters may feel enormous pressure to do the “right” thing by their mothers—and end up acting “as if.”  The pressure may be cultural, come from siblings or other relatives, or—if the daughter still feels as though she is somehow responsible for her mother’s unloving behavior—from within. Recognizing your own motivations is very important, as is being kind to yourself. If you feel stressed, do something to relieve that stress—something that gives you pleasure. This doesn’t mean that you need to buy yourself gifts but that you acknowledge your own needs and their validity. 

7. Feed your sense of joy

It’s true enough that, for many of us, the holidays divert our attention to memories of the past, not all of them pleasant. Do your best to focus on what gives you pleasure, so that you can put yourself in charge of your joy. Small things and large bring each of us joy, and it’s important we work at staying open to those things so we can be joyous. 

One daughter writes how her new understanding of letting go of the past grew her own sense of joy; not surprisingly, the story involves a Christmas tree.  “I never decorated a Christmas tree until I left home, or put up any decorations for that matter. Mother always did the tree and decorations alone, because they had to be perfect. The tree had to look perfectly symmetrical. I'm ashamed to say I followed this tradition for a few years, not allowing my children to touch 'my tree'. Until one year I came to my senses and realized the children were itching to have a go. Now the children decorate the tree by themselves and I've learnt to love the 'thrown on' look. I now realize the joy of decorating the tree is more important than a 'perfect' looking tree. Although I have been known to move the odd bauble when nobody is looking. (hard to shake that one!)”  This story illuminates how we can usefully reflect on our past experiences, change our behavior, and increase the joy in our relationships and surroundings.

Good luck to you.  Happy Holidays and don’t forget to toast healing old wounds and growing into the future!

Copyright © Peg Streep 2013

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