No matter where on the spectrum your family falls from wonderful to awful, going home for the holidays is more complicated for most than all joy, merriment, and lights. Even as adults, stepping back into in-person family dynamics can make us feel like a kid again, including all the unpleasant parts. If this is you, know that you’re not alone.
In my experience as a therapist supporting clients with family relationship challenges, it’s common for clients to feel ambivalent or anxious when anticipating family time. Particularly during this time of year, my sessions with clients often focus on exploring together where they have some control to support themselves as they prepare for their time ahead with family. In this post, I want to share a few great ways to take care of yourself when you go home for the holidays this year.
6 ways to take care of yourself when you go home for the holidays:
1. Manage your expectations
Mom is still mom and Uncle Joe is still Uncle Joe. Your sister will still run late, and your brother won’t get you a gift. In short, everyone will still be themselves, and your family will still be your family. Even more so as they, too, try to manage the stress and expectations of this time of year.
It may be helpful to remind yourself of this as you plan to travel home. A useful mantra might be, “My holiday will be just another day(s) in my relationships, even if it’s tricked out in lights.” Keeping this in mind may help you better manage surprise and disappointment.
It’s common to feel ambivalent when anticipating family time.
2. Your feelings are tools.
If you’ve ever been to therapy, you may have heard the expression that “feelings aren’t facts.” However, you can use your feelings as support. Your feelings can give you information about what you need. Gather information about your needs and check in with yourself from time to time. Examining your feelings objectively and anticipating them can also help you feel more grounded and in control.
Examining your feelings objectively and anticipating them can also help you feel more grounded and in control.
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For example, Are you feeling angry anticipating your grandmother and aunts asking if you are seeing anyone? Prepare a one-liner to have on hand in response. Are you feeling anxious about spending so much time with your brother? Consider planning a trip home for 3 days instead of the 6 days you had planned; Set a time to walk with a friend out of the house ahead of time. Are you worried about feeling bad in your body with all of the heavy cooking? Plan to bring some prepared food for yourself that you know feels good in your body.
3. “I’m going for a walk now”
Setting boundaries is one of the great ways to take care of yourself when you go home for the holidays. They’re also some of the most empowering tools at your disposal to honor yourself and your relationships. Boundaries can look like physical space—going for an errand out of the home, spending time in your room, staying in the basement or a hotel, or removing yourself from the conversation if the subject matter is triggering.
They can also look like telling others what you’ll do to maintain your emotional and physical wellbeing. These may include things like;“I will be bringing one present for everyone as this is what I can comfortably afford,” or “I have to leave the day after Christmas,” or “Please don’t use this pronoun with me.”
Note: If you feel physically or emotionally unsafe with your family, more extreme boundaries are an option to you, such as choosing to not go home at all or to leave early.
Setting physical and emotional boundaries is a great way to take care of yourself when you go home for the holidays.
4. Yes, it’s really okay to go for a walk now, no matter what Aunt Paula says.
If you didn’t know that you can talk to yourself, you are missing out on a major tool of support. And you may need that here because people we love often initially resist change and boundaries. No matter what someone says, does, or how they feel about your boundaries, you have permission to take care of you. It may be helpful before you arrive, and in the moment to take a few deep breaths and remind yourself:
“I’m not a bad person for taking care of myself in this way.”
“It is not my job to take care of this person’s feelings and expectations.”
“In the long term, this boundary will make me less resentful in my relationship.”
Setting boundaries is one of the most empowering tools at your disposal to take care of yourself and your relationships.
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5. Be kind to yourself
This is a complex time of year. Families are complicated. In the spirit of generosity, practice some with yourself, too. Try telling yourself: “This is hard,” “I deserve to take care of myself,” or “I’m doing my best.” One of the ways to take care of yourself when you go home for the holidays is by being your best ally.
Being your own best ally can look like taking basic care of your needs like making sure that you are getting enough quality sleep, eating nourishing foods, and moving your body in joyful ways. Or explore a supportive habit like meditation, breathing, or journaling to manage stress.
No matter what someone says, does, or how they feel about your boundaries, you have permission to take care of you.
6. Call in the reserves
When immediate family members feel tough, overwhelming, or limited, call in the reserves. Get creative. Who is available to support you with some of your experience? Who can help you get out of your head or feel more grounded for a while? Maybe this looks like one particular ally in your family, or some friends in your hometown with whom you can make plans. Can you set a Facetime with your partner? If you have a therapist, can you set a plan of support with them? If you don’t have a trusted therapist, consider reaching out to find one. Follow a therapist or other accounts on Instagram that feel affirming. If you’ve decided not to go home for the holidays, where can you access your chosen family?
The Bottom Line
Setting boundaries and practicing these techniques may feel uncomfortable at first. It’s completely normal to get some pushback, especially if you’ve never set boundaries with family, friends, or loved ones before.
But with these helpful tools and strategies, my wish is that you’ll feel more self-assured and equipped to honor your own needs in any family holiday environment. As you search for gifts, also search for choices, tools, and supports available to you before you head home this year. You’ve got this.
Your Turn: What ways do you take care of yourself when you go home for the holidays? Share what’s worked in the comments below.