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6 Ways to Get Through the Holidays in One Piece

For some, this is the most stressful time of the year.

Key points

  • Managing your emotions requires that you understand what you are feeling; understanding your response to the holidays is key.
  • Winging it if you anticipate fractiousness or friction is a lousy idea; take control by planning to cut down your reactivity.
  • Rather than count your blessings, you will feel happier and more grateful if you subtract them; it's a research-based hack.
Photograph by Hamburger Arts. Copyright free. Unsplash
Source: Photograph by Hamburger Arts. Copyright free. Unsplash

It’s not going to surprise anyone that the way joy is enforced during the holiday season—all those images of smiling families sitting around a table or gathering by a Christmas tree, the piped-in music that surrounds us pretty much everywhere—is especially difficult for those with frayed or even non-existent ties to their families of origin. It’s also true that the season can act as a source of painful recall and memories that continue to deliver an emotional punch. A few years ago, a reader asked me this in a message:

“Am I the only one who’d like to leave the planet or maybe go to sleep the day before Thanksgiving and come back or wake up on January 2? Getting through this time of year seems to get harder, rather than easier. It’s as the ghosts of my childhood experiences take up residence in my head and suck the joy out of the present. Any thoughts?”

Well, actually I have several. It’s a topic I turn to almost every year.

6 Things You Can Do to Reduce Holiday Stress

1. Explore your feelings.

Taking your emotional temperature is the first step—and the best way to do that is to explore why the season gets under your skin. If you are still in contact with your family of origin and plan on seeing them, figure out why the idea fills you with such angst or dread. Think back and figure out what set you off on previous occasions; that will help you navigate the waters.

If you are estranged from your family, do spend time unpacking your emotions. Are you still grieving the loss or do you mainly feel angry? Do you consider estrangement a stigma and are you embarrassed or feel shame when people ask you questions about your plans?

Holidays focus on family ties and when yours are complicated or have gone missing, you can feel like an outlier in a vast sea of connected people. But you aren’t alone, in fact.

2. Come up with a plan to manage family gatherings.

Playing it by ear is just an invitation to ramp up your reactivity and make the occasion even more stressful. Remember that while you can’t control how other people act, you can control your own reactions. The chances are good that old patterns of familial behavior will repeat themselves.

For example. If your parent indulges in playing favorites when gifting—buying expensive presents for one child and not another—it’s likely to happen again. That may even be true if you called him or her out on it last year; alas, your parent may have discounted your comments or ignored them.

Decide ahead of time how you will handle issues that have come up in the past; it’s best to decide on a plan of action when you’re calm and not in the thick of it. Do remember that the holidays do not give anyone a pass on abusive behavior.

If you are wondering whether you should actually attend because you don't want to be subjected to abuse, listen to yourself carefully. A holiday gathering should not be something you or your intimates need to recover from. Seek advice if you need it.

3. Don’t feel compelled to answer questions you don’t feel like answering.

Adult children who are estranged from their families of origin often feel under fire because what might well be an innocent inquiry by someone you work with or are just acquainted with may feel terrifically invasive but you still feel the need to explain yourself. Don’t. Answer the question in any way that is comfortable for you which includes not answering at all or switching the subject. You don’t owe anyone chapter and verse, for one thing, and, for another, you’re not the only person in this boat. It’s the cultural drumbeat that makes you feel you are.

4. Put aside your own perfectionism.

Again, it’s the images of all those gorgeously decorated interiors—those perfect trees, those expensive ornaments—and exquisitely iced cookies that can make you feel like an abject failure if you’re somehow not keeping up. Please do remember that your living room isn’t going to be on the cover of a shelter magazine and, more importantly, a wobbly cookie made with love is just as good to eat as the ones Martha Stewart serves.

Wanting things to be “perfect” sounds inspirational but it can also bring out the worst in us. Instead, relax into the moment and enjoy; it's a celebration and not a test of your worth.

5. Pay no mind to social media.

Yes, carefully curated photographs will show you that everyone’s life is perfect in every way except for yours and the best way of dealing with that is to recognize the curation or, even better, don’t look at all. Holidays aren’t a competitive sport.

6. Focus on what you have and not what’s missing.

Perhaps one of my favorite research papers used a scene from the movie "It’s a Wonderful Life" as its premise: it’s the moment when George Bailey wishes he’d never been born and Clarence the angel shows him what would have happened to all the people in his life if he hadn’t been.

Instead of counting their blessings, the researchers looked at what happened if people subtracted their blessings instead. And guess what? It worked. So subtract those good things in your life for a. moment, and see how your appreciation of them lifts up your spirits.

You can tackle what’s missing in your life on January 2.

Seek Help If You Need It

If you are feeling isolated or unable to cope, please remember that no one will give you a gold star for trying to go it alone. Speak to a therapist if you need to. To find one near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

Copyright © Peg Streep 2022


Koo, Minkyung, Sara B, Agoe, Timothy D. Wilson, and Daniel T. Gilbert,” It’s a Wonderful Life; Mentally Subtracting Positive Events Improves People’s Affective States, Contrary to Their Affective Forecasts.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. vol. 95, no.5 (2008), 1217-1224.