Ah Christmas. Yuletide. The Holidays. Whatever you call it and however you participate, it can be a time of celebration. It can mean a trip to visit family. For some people, it’s a grand old time. For others? Let’s just say that not all is calm and bright. Old habits resurface; the healthy boundaries you’ve worked hard to establish vanish as soon as you walk in the door. It’s a weird time. Maybe it’s your first year without a loved one. Maybe there’s new friction between your parents or with a sibling. Maybe there’s that creepy uncle you’ve never felt comfortable around. For some, it’s awkward. For some, it’s down right re-traumatizing. And for those of us who are single, we might be going in without support.

There’s a lot we can’t control or change. If you’ve been around humans for any length of time, you probably know that. Let’s take a beat together and consider some choices you can make that might help. 

1) Set yourself up well

I’m a fan of journaling. As I’m of the praying persuasion and a writing disposition, it’s a great way for me to be super honest about what I’m feeling in anticipation of anything. What am I worried about? What do I think might happen? What am I excited about? If you are not a fan of writing, perhaps going through it out loud is your jam. Talk it out alone in the shower (that’s where I do my best thinking) or with a trusted friend. It’s also a good time to check in with your friends who are in a similar situation. Not only is it helpful for them, I find that my friends are very smart and they put words to what I might be feeling but am having a hard time describing. Win-win. 

Want to think through your anticipation, but don’t know where to start? I’ve got a guide for that 😉 Click below to download.

2) Manage your expectations 

Whether things are great with your family, dysfunctional beyond belief, or somewhere in between, you have expectations for what this time will be like. Mayhaps you’ve been in therapy and you feel inspired to have one giant conversation to address a lifetime of unhealthy or harmful behavior. Mayhaps you are unconsciously hoping to recapture the magic of childhood Christmas, before life got so complicated. Mayhaps you are anxious about that one grandparent that always comments on your weight and how much food you’re eating, and you’re thinking, This is the year I’m finally going to say something

Our expectations either set us up for disappointment or success. There is absolutely a place for hope, and even ambition. But when it comes to deeply ingrained family roles and learned behavior, it’s also important to be honest and realistic. If there is some sort of progress you would like to make, keep it simple and manageable. Perhaps it’s just a matter of noticing and acknowledging what’s going on inside you, or giving yourself permission to say no to one thing or ask clarifying questions. Whatever you choose and whatever your expectations, this is not a time to make yourself feel guilty for all you are or aren’t doing. Give yourself grace.

3) Find ways to be helpful

Speaking of win-wins, space is a beautiful thing for all parties involved. There are ways you can help yourself and whoever you’re staying with at the same time. For example, if you’re at a large gathering and are overwhelmed, maybe offer to take out the trash, refill something on the snack table, or do the dishes. Offer to go to the grocery store. Take the dog for a walk. Get creative. 

4) Take a beat

It is easy to fall back into old habits, and that can be frustrating. The fact of the matter is that the progress you’ve made didn’t happen overnight. And heading back into the environment in which you learned some of your less than helpful habits tends to make it seem like maybe they never left at all. This is not a time to beat yourself up. What you’re experiencing is human. For now, maybe all you can do is recognize what’s happening. Believe it or not, that is progress! So if you’re feeling frustrated with yourself take a moment to breathe deeply. Notice and describe what you’re feeling and experiencing. Visualize a giant Mufasa head in the sky and hear James Earl Jones saying, “Remember who you are.” If you’re about that Jesus life, take a second to check in. 

5) Schedule touchpoint times 

Hey, if you’re feeling weird, chances are you aren’t the only one. Check-in with your support system. Maybe that support system is your biological family, but this year you’re all with your brother’s in-laws and they’re mad weird. If not, hopefully you have a trusted friend or two you can call. They could probably use someone to talk to as well. 

6) Have fun

What do you love doing purely for the joy of doing it? Some people are into running, which has never once been a fun experience for me, but different strokes and all that. I love walking on the beach, reading, going to see movies. Mayhaps there’s a fun book you’ve been meaning to read. Personally, my mom just got me the new illustrated edition of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. It’s my favorite of the HP books, and even though I’ve read it a million times, I never seem to love it any less. But this version has the coolest illustrations, so I am reading it for the millionth-and-first time. Purely for the delight of it. Whatever your thing is, portion out some time for it where you can. Laughter is an incredible stress reliever. 

7) Take advantage of your surroundings

Being in a different place can be cool. Even if you’re in the town you grew up in, chances are it’s changed in some way. Maybe there’s a new restaurant or a new park. Maybe there’s a familiar, favorite spot or activity you always go back to. Maybe there are friends from high school you don’t get to see often. Go to town, as it were. 

8) Own your choice

As I mentioned, some things are outside of your control. But there are also things in which you have a choice. I am here giving you permission to make that choice and to gently but firmly stick to it, or adapt if you choose to do so. Maybe the sleeping arrangement you’re walking into is less than ideal or downright unsafe. Maybe your family doesn’t believe that you have a gluten allergy and refuses to accommodate. Maybe this year your family situation is more complicated than it normally is. You are allowed to say no. You are allowed to ask clarifying questions. If someone is telling you otherwise, be very skeptical of their motives. 

9) End of day journaling

This is a tool my therapist gave me to process my monthly voice lesson without being hard on myself or only thinking about what I didn’t do well. Make a list of three things that went well, and three small things you wish had gone better. As Dr. Therapist say, “There’s no losing here. There’s only winning and learning.” Give yourself grace to learn. 

As you prepare and consider, I would encourage you to reach out regularly. Sometimes, though, your friends, as lovely as they are, are not equipped to do all that a licensed professional can. If any of this is too overwhelming for you, consider reaching out to a trusted counselor or calling a hotline. 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit https://nami.zendesk.com/hc/en-us/categories/360001837134-HelpLine