For many of us the Holidays are a time of happy memories and family-focused fun. The planning of extended family get-togethers can be a chance to see people we miss and love and only see once or twice a year. For others, it is a time of difficult memories, of disappointments, or just general stress, along with the enjoyable times. Our childhood experiences of the Holidays can play a powerful influence over how we feel about the Holidays in our adult lives. On the other hand, no matter what your memories of the Holidays might be like, this can also be a time of year when you have the opportunity to change your family interactions to heal disrupted bonds or to let go of old perceptions, attitudes and wounds. Whatever the case might be for any one of us, the Holidays are usually a time when we will encounter others in our family that are not part of our everyday lives.
When I was in college studying anthropology, we learned about distant cultures, tribal cultures, “primitive” cultures, small villages in which the people had rituals and events (the village harvest feast) built into their lives that required them to come together, so they were forced to address the needs of their small communities as a community, so they could re-negotiate relationships between friends, families and neighbors. I remember thinking then, and still think now, that Thanksgiving and Christmas, Hanukah and New Years are the same kind of thing in our culture—they are times when we are required to meet with our extended families according to long-standing traditions, when we are expected to be in certain places with certain people whether we want to be there with them or not. This can make us uncomfortable, and even resentful about some of the events, but we do it because we are expected to do it.
The Holidays are a time when we must confront old family relationships again and again, each time, each year. And in doing so, we also have the chance to re-negotiate those relationships if we choose to do so. We can do so externally by actually changing the way we respond to others in our families, by changing the rules ourselves, consciously, outwardly. An example could be that we no longer tolerate certain kinds of behaviors that have caused trouble in the past. We might decide in advance to tell a parent not to scold us for something if it comes up. Or we might carve out extra time for specific members of the family that we want to focus on. Or we change the rules very slightly, unintentionally, by bringing the changes in our lives to our extended families—new jobs, new house, new relationship, new kids. And these changes in our lives change the nature of relationships we have with others in our families without further requirements from us. Finally, we can decide internally that we want to change relationships by changing our attitudes, perceptions and expectations of others. This kind of change can happen without speaking a single word to anyone other than ourselves about it.
It seems the “stress of the Holidays” is all about the expectations we put upon ourselves based on what we think others want from us. We run around trying to do everything we can in advance of the Holidays to make sure we are prepared to meet those expectations. We might be given responsibilities to fulfill around the Holidays, either explicitly by a family member telling us what they expect, or implicitly, by traditions, and “just knowing” what mom or dad or grandma wants from everyone. The reality is that we take those responsibilities onto ourselves. We decide that we will meet those expectations. And then we get stressed out because we either take on too much, or we feel insecure about whether we can meet the expectations no matter what we do.
The Holidays don’t need to be either too stressful, or too difficult. We can view them as a chance to make positive changes to relationships that are important to us. This can be done by lowering our expectations for ourselves and for others, and by choosing how we will respond to others, no matter how they might respond to us or to each other. I can tell myself that I am not going to let myself get irritated if my brother boasts at length about his job again this year. I will plan to bring something to Christmas dinner that I like to eat, in addition to bringing what my sister wants me to bring. I can decide in advance that I am going to leave a little earlier this year so I can relax on Christmas Day evening with my family, even though others might be coming later in the day and expect me to stay longer. Set your own expectations for how you want to handle relationships in advance, and then follow through with those changes. You don’t need the permission of others to do this.
No matter what kinds of decisions we make about how we want to spend our Holidays, and no matter what the result, one thing is sure: there is always next year, which will yet again be a time for us to think about and feel the changes in our lives, and the continuing changes going on in the relationships we have with our families. The more conscious we are about these changes, within ourselves, and between us and our families, the better able we will be to decide how to enjoy the Holidays based on expectations and responsibilities we choose to meet, rather than simply trying to meet the expectations and responsibilities others might ask us to meet regardless of what we want for ourselves.
So, enjoy the Holidays. They may be difficult at times. They will hopefully be delightful at times. Whatever they might be, the Holidays are also your time too. Make them your time!
Blog entries and other materials available on Jupiter Center’s website are intended to stimulate thoughts and conversations and to supplement therapy work with Jupiter Center clients already in therapy. If you or someone you know suffers from a mental illness, you are strongly encouraged to seek help from a mental health professional. For further information about this blog, or Jupiter Center, contact Michael Kinzer at 612-701-0064 or michael(at)jupitercenter.com.