I love my family, but I hate the holidays. I have to go to our family gathering anyway. What can I do to get through it?
-Dreading in Dover
You're really asking the ultimate question, and my inclination is to ask YOU a few questions. Unfortunately, this is an advice column, not a synchronous conversation, so I'm going to have to guess at what your answers might be.
First, why do you hate the holidays? Is this distaste something you've always lived with, or did some recent events turn them sour for you? Don't worry, I'm not going to argue against any reason for feeling sad, irritable, or disgusted at your family dinner table. I am simply going to point out that if you're aware of WHAT inspires that feeling, you can better prepare yourself to handle it. Let's run through some possibilities:
Maybe you hate the holidays because they just aren't what they used to be when you were a kid. If you're an adult, chances are at least a face or two is missing from the photos, and all of the remaining faces, including your own, have changed. In some cases, you might even be spending holidays with someone else's family or in-laws, and that adds a whole other dimension of longing to the experience. That's really hard.
America's obsession with gratitude probably doesn't help. Before anyone grabs the pitchforks and torches, hear me out. We're constantly told to stay focused on what we're grateful for. While that's a great practice, it would also be a really convenient tagline for a society in which we want to keep people from complaining, or worse, acting against systemic injustice. I'm not saying your yoga teacher telling you to write three things you're thankful for every day is some sinister consumerist plot to condition Americans against their own suffering, but I AM saying that it's ok to acknowledge and feel sad when something sucks without distracting yourself, and, more importantly, without BEATING YOURSELF UP THAT YOU AREN'T FEELING JAZZED AND OVERWHELMED WITH GRATITUDE. Death can suck. Aging can suck. Holidays can really suck. You're not ungrateful, spoiled, cynical, broken, or bad for feeling sad during the most magical time of the year. In fact, amongst adults, you're probably in the majority if you have at least mixed feelings about the season.
So, if that's the feeling, what can you do about it to best navigate through the holidays? First, give yourself the time and space before and after your holiday events to process your grief. Second, don't act like it isn't there. If you miss Grandpa, talk about him! Tell your mom it's bumming you out. Ask your aunt to tell the story about the time he ate a live fish. Our dead don't have to be elephants in the room.
Neither do our pasts. Maybe the night before Christmas Eve, you got completely trashed with your college friends and woke up with a stranger, and your depressed, hungover ass can't seem to handle the fact that your family used to know a sweet little kid, eyes twinkling by the tree. But you did grow up. And you can hold space for little you without letting yourself or anyone else down by being an imperfect adult. Cherish the times you had as a kid and look for ways to carry the thread to today because it does connect whether you see it today or not.
Your family sucks.
Maybe they've always sucked. Maybe half of them lost their minds sometime around 2015, and you can't understand why they seem to just really be all-in on being shitty. (If that's the case, hey, that's also grieving the sane, compassionate people they used to be.) However they suck, ask yourself if you really have to be there. If you do, it's got to be for one of two reasons:
They don't actually suck as much as you're feeling, and you still want to spend time with them. If that's the case, try to avoid topics of conversation that will bring out their worst. If it comes out anyway, be honest, and direct about your feelings and kindly ask them to move on. If they can't maintain that boundary, you are always free to excuse yourself. In fact, at any time for any reason at pretty much any place (except, I suppose, court or jail, or a standardized test, or a moving vehicle) you are allowed to excuse yourself.
You care about pleasing one or more not-shitty members of your family more than. you care about having a good time yourself. If that's the case, congratulations! You are not a selfish person, and that's great. But you also need boundaries, so feel free to just "stop by" and take care of yourself. Also, if you're there to make someone else happy, it seems like a fine reason to be a barnacle. Appoint yourself Grandma's bodyguard and don't let her out of your sight for any reason. It will probably minimize confrontation if you're always next to someone you feel safe with.
Your family doesn't suck.
Maybe your family is fine. Maybe they're devoid of tragedy and conflict, or at least over those things enough to have a nice time together. Maybe you're just an introvert or you hate Christmas music or you don't like leaving the house in winter. Honestly, no matter who you are, being around your natal family by definition will remind you of the parts of your identity that you can't change no matter how far you run or how much you do. You will always have been born you amongst certain people in a certain place. Your childhood went a certain way. You look a certain way. There's a solid chance things come out of your brother's mouth and you think, "Oh shit, that is what I sound like."
Maybe here is where we embrace the gratitude model. If the holidays are just kind of not your thing, find the things that are your thing within it, and focus on those. I don't like the way my cousin has the same obnoxious laugh as my dad, but I do like that we share super flexible shoulders. I don't like church, but I love me an advent candle. I don't like ham, but I like rolls. I don't like waking up early, but I do like never having to buy my own socks because every year, someone else does it for me.
Mostly, just take care of yourself, Dreading. Set boundaries and expectations before you go into it. Don't tell yourself it's either a massive success or a blowout. The less pressure you put on yourself, your family, and the day, the less likely you are to collapse under the weight of Christmas. Give yourself all the space you need while holding space and offering compassion to your friends and relations. And if there are people you like better, give them a call at the end of the night.
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