The Simple Guide to Surviving Holidays with Family
by Life Coach, Linda Luke
As a Life Coach I have heard hundreds of stories about family holidays gone wrong, everything from abuse and judgment to drunken fights that result in a visit by the police. Instead of that perfect family gathering we dream of, many of us experience a day of challenges where issues are amplified and personalities clash.
Our families can make us feel crazy!
In this book, you will learn how to prepare yourself so that you feel safe and confident as you walk into your family celebration. There will also be skills and tools to support you when in the midst of the mania. The final section offers you the opportunity to do inner work that will help you feel more clear and peaceful around the issues your family triggers within you.
This book is called simple for a reason. We are all busy, and I believe that straightforward to the point skills and tools are what will help you the most.
So, let’s get to it…
How to Prepare Before the Big Day
Walking into a potentially unhealthy family situation without protecting yourself is like opening a bee hive without one of those big white suits. You are leaving yourself exposed to multiple sting attacks when you really don’t need to get stung at all.
The good news is that when it comes to being with family, there are a number of ways to prepare yourself and increase the possibilities of a better outcome. It’s time to get your bee suit on…
Everything Starts with Intention
Setting an intention for your holiday will help you become clear, stay focused on what you want to happen, and support you in feeling stronger and more confident. When your energy shifts through this new intention, people will sense the change in you and the dynamics of your interactions can shift, too.
Intentions are different than goals:
Intentions come from the heart. They are the broader, over-riding desire that goals support and can be focused not only on what you want to do, but how you want to show up and feel in the process.
Goals come from the mind. They are more specific and usually about how things will come together and the actions that will be taken.
How do you set an intention?
- Visualize how you want to be during the holiday and what you would like to experience
- Focus on a positive outcome (not what you don’t want)
- Begin with the phrases: I intend to…, I am…, I will…
- Write as if it is already true
You can set multiple intentions as long as they don’t feel complicated or hard to remember. You may also have some specific goals that will support your over-riding intention that you would like to add.
After you have your intention(s), write them down and post them where you will see them often or carry them with you. Use them as guideposts and reminders as you go through the holiday season.
Read your intentions before you enter your family gathering and whenever you feel yourself start to lose focus or feel triggered by the people around you.
One of my clients reported that she spent a family holiday running to the bathroom for quick intention breaks when she felt triggered. She said it worked great, but several people asked if she was feeling okay, which gave her a good laugh.
The Guilt Trip
When you feel you have to or should do something, you are probably operating under a guilt trip. There are many, many forms that holiday guilt can take. We will focus on a couple of the common ones, which should give you an idea how to handle the other, more creative ones that run in your family.
But first, it is important to be clear about whether the expectations are truly coming from others or if you are the one driving yourself to meet unrealistic standards. It is not uncommon to feel you need to do more or be more to be liked, loved, or accepted. It’s that old people pleasing thing again. So, check inside and ask yourself if the other people involved would really judge you harshly for not making that special pie you hate or would they be happy to see you relax and join in the fun. The good news is that if you are the one putting pressure on yourself and no one else cares, it is a lot easier to let it go.
If not, here are some ideas that can support you.
In many families there are implied requirements for the gifts you give. There could even be a competition going on for who comes up with the most perfect present. Usually, gift expectations have something to do with the amount of money spent or perceived value of your gifts and in some families, someone is always keeping score. Meeting expectations and upholding a certain image can be incredibly stressful and set you up for a no win situation.
As a result, you may feel compelled to spend way beyond your budget or means, going into debt just to feel okay about yourself and please the people around you.
Here is my perspective:
If anyone values the gift you give over your financial well-being, they either don’t really care about you or are caught up in the gift giving game themselves. There is no reason to spend more than you can afford or put tremendous pressure on yourself to get things just right.
Gift giving is not a win or lose game. It is important to respect yourself by giving only what you can afford and feels right for you. True gifts come from the heart and there are many ways to create meaningful gifts and memories that last without focusing on the money.
And, what if they react?
Be honest. Tell them what is behind the more meaningful gift you chose and how it came from a place of caring. In some situations you may even want to let them know you have made a decision to keep within a certain budget. You could risk even more and suggest ahead of time that everyone do less together. Deep down they may feel the same way and be relieved someone brought it up.
And remember, their reaction is about them, not you. If you are coming from a place of clear intention that respects and honors everyone involved, you have done well. Let them know you are sorry they feel unhappy with your decision and that it was not your intention to hurt them, and then change the subject.
The Perfect Meal
I remember feeling really intimidated when my exes mother would come for a holiday dinner. It felt like everything had to be perfect and failure was just around the corner. My holiday was spent slaving away over the stove and I tried to make the best turkey ever, even though I am a vegetarian. In the end, I was stressed, often ended up in tears, and was too tired to interact or really join in the fun.
Once again expectations come into play. I have a friend who does this all the time. She gives amazing parties, but no one gets to spend time with her. The trick is to balance the two.
If your family is used to your creating extravagant and perfect holiday meals that stress you out, it might be time to have a conversation with them. Let them know how you feel and that you would like to be able to spend more time with them. The ones that really care will listen. You may want to suggest:
- Getting a prepared meal from a local restaurant with you creating their favorite side dishes
- Family members bringing some of the dishes (yes, I mean potluck)
- Going out to dinner
- Taking turns
- Volunteering at a food kitchen and eating there
The Dreaded Day is Here – Now What?
My client, Melissa, tells the story of one holiday where she worked herself up into a frazzled and stressed state just thinking about getting in the car to visit her family. By the time she got there, she had a headache, her whole body was tense, and she was ready to snap. Needless to say, the family celebration turned into a family disaster and Melissa ended up crying all the way home.
The following year she worked with me to create a plan for a calmer, saner, and more intentional Thanksgiving with her family. It included ways to support herself in feeling more grounded and strong before she even left her house. Melissa was amazed at how taking care of herself and showing up at the door in a more clear and relaxed state allowed her to not only survive the holiday, but have fun.
Start by taking some time to do something that will help you feel more grounded before you go. The most powerful thing you can do is tap into your connection with God or ground yourself in your own inner wisdom. Here are some ideas to get you started:
- Review your holiday intentions
- Focus on the meaning of the holiday
- Dance, sing, or do something that makes you laugh
- Walk in nature
- Write or think about what you are grateful for
- Do something to nurture yourself
- Enjoy uplifting holiday music
- Read something that helps you feel more grounded
Don’t Let Negative Thoughts Manipulate You
Many of the things you worry about never happen. Your mind can be very creative with the stories it creates and loves to keep them spinning without giving you a moment of peace. Next thing you know, it feels like your mind and the stories it is telling are really true.
It’s the thought that counts. Each and every thought. Your thoughts create your feelings and what you feel leads to what you do. So, in essence, the thoughts you focus on control your every mood and move.
The good news is that you get to choose your thoughts. Here are some ideas that will help you in this process:
- Question your thoughts. When you become aware of a negative thought, ask yourself if you can be absolutely sure it is true. If not, set it aside.
- Watch out for labels and stories you tell yourself. They are often not true and limit your ability to see the entire situation clearly.
- Beware generalizations and all or nothing thinking. Words like always, never, should, can’t, and hard (as well as others) are signs that you are limiting your view of the situation.
- Look for the positive. That person who triggers you is bound to have at least one good thing going for them. We commonly only pay attention to what we label bad and it will help your perspective and how you feel to see a more balanced picture. Uncle Joe may be really rude and sarcastic, but maybe he is the one who shows up when someone really needs help.
- Remember that most people are doing the best they can or know how. Think about the circumstances that have caused them to evolve to where they are now. Is there room for more understanding and compassion on your part?
- Look to the intentions behind their actions. You might find they are not trying to hurt or upset you, they are simply drowning in their own stuff.
- If you are generally nervous about interacting with your family, take the focus off you by spending more time listening. You can prepare questions ahead if it helps you feel more comfortable.
- Enter your interactions with love, understanding, and gratitude. It’s pretty hard to go wrong with this one. If you are having trouble getting into a loving state of mind, picture a new baby, puppies, kittens, or someone you love.
Visualize Protection and Success
Visualization is a powerful tool that can support you when dealing with people that trigger you. Take a few moments before you walk out the door or get out of your car (or both) to re-center yourself and practice one or more of these visualizations that are favorites of my clients,
- Visualize the holiday gathering in the way you want it to be, like an athlete doing a mental rehearsal before the big game. Science has proven this can really help.
- Imagine putting on a protective cloak or surrounding yourself with a bubble that keeps you safe. One of my clients loves putting on an imaginary Iron Man suit.
- See yourself as a tree with a large, solid trunk and deeply planted roots. Any upsetting things that come up at the holiday party are just little breezes blowing through your leaves. Your trunk and roots are always solid, strong, and grounded.
- Picture yourself in the peaceful quiet that exists under water. Issues that come up are simply waves that never impact you where you are. (I will admit this one freaks me out, but a couple of my clients love it.)
- Imagine a protector standing with you at all times. The fun thing here is that you can choose anyone, living or dead, real or imagined. Super heroes, movie characters, animals, someone you admire, and even relatives who have passed. They are all available and you can be as creative as you want.
And last, but certainly not least, visualize the strength and protection coming from you heart. Let your heart fill you with protective light and lift you up with confidence.
Let the Games Begin
And, here you are. The family gathering has begun and you are surrounded by people whose sole purpose in the world seems to be to trigger you. What do you do now?
Refresh your intentions and visualizations if you need to, even if it means running to the restroom like my client did. It’s easy to lose your new found focus when in the middle of upsetting situations, but it only takes a minute to get it back.
Skip the Booze
Alcohol and family gatherings do not always mix well. Having a few drinks has a way of amplifying the issues that are already there. If your family has a history of alcohol related fights and problems, it may be time to suggest a no alcohol policy. If they do not agree, limiting how much you drink can help you stay grounded and keep your wits about you.
Accept and Reframe
Accept the people around you for who they are. Things have happened in their lives that made them this way and they are most likely doing the best they can. When you accept people or situations you no longer have to put your precious energy into resisting what is true. You can also shift your energy and experience by reframing any negative thoughts that are coming up and focusing on the possibilities that do exist for connection and fun.
- Family gatherings are always stressful. – I can be relaxed when I accept what is true.
- My Mom is so controlling. – My mom is afraid.
- My brother is a jerk. – My brother is trying to get attention in the only way he knows how.
- I can’t deal with them. – I can handle this with confidence, ease, and grace.
Become the Observer
It is possible to feel completely neutral about what is happening around you when you operate from an observer state. The observer is separate, unattached, and can see things happen without getting upset by them. You can use this as a tool for being in situations and not taking them personally, which comes in real handy when family is involved. Two of the easiest ways to step into the observer state are:
- Imagine you are floating in an upper corner of the room watching yourself and your interactions with others
- Visualize stepping back and watching what is happening as if you are seeing it play out on a movie screen
When you see your family gatherings from this safe point of view, you will feel less attached and reactive to the situation, allowing your experience to be less stressful or upsetting.
It is important to protect yourself from people who do not respect your wishes or over-step in their interactions with you. They are most likely to listen to you when you come from a position of clarity and strength, so you need to be clear within yourself about what you want. Sometimes, upsetting situations can be prevented by avoiding the person or stepping away when you are uncomfortable, but there are also times when it is best to address the situation directly. Here is how:
- Be clear
- Be firm
- Be gracious
- Don’t defend, negotiate, or over-explain
- Stay calm
- Remember their reaction is about them, not you
- If they react inappropriately, step away without entering into the fray
- Send beams of love their way
Sample boundary language:
- I need some space.
- It is not okay for you to yell at me. I am going to leave the room until you calm down.
- I want you to stop making remarks about my weight. It is not okay.
- I can’t hear you through your anger. Let’s take a break and calm down.
- We do not use that type of language in this house.
- What you are saying/doing is disrespectful to her/him/me and I want you to stop.
- I will not be loaning you more money. I feel it is time for you to learn to take care of yourself.
- I understand that you are upset, but there is no reason for you to ….. Please stop.
- I love you, but am not okay with what you are doing right now. I know you are better than this.
Don’t Engage in the Game
When someone continually tests you, they are looking for a weakness or opening to get you to play their game. Common games are:
- I am right, you are wrong
- Creating drama or fighting
- Making you feel guilty
- Playing the victim
- Making you feel stupid, ugly, small, etc. so they can feel better
- Manipulation or control
When you choose not to engage and enter into the arena with them, they often give up and go away. If there is a pattern of your giving in, they may come back and try again, but staying strong in your ability to resist the invitation can eliminate these challenges over time.
The key is to stay calm, firm, and not react. Trying to defend yourself will likely backfire and become meaningless. You may want to simply and firmly state that you are not interested in the conversation, and if you can, step away. Do what feels authentic and right for you. Just, don’t step into the fray.
Choose Your Language Carefully
Challenging conversations are best handled by staying calm and neutral, while still being true to yourself. One of the common issues in these conversations is when the other person does not feel heard. You may be listening, but something in them can’t feel it. When someone does not feel heard, they are more likely to repeat themselves, get upset, and react negatively. They are also less likely to hear what you have to say.
There is a simple way to help these conversations go more smoothly. Before you respond with what you want to say, pause, and then say something that reassures them you were listening when they spoke.
You might try:
- I can see how you could think/feel that way.
- I hear what you are saying.
- I can see what you were trying to do.
- I understand this is upsetting for you.
- I heard you say…. Is that correct?
Notice, none of these statements say that they are right or you agree with them. They will, though, often allow the other person to relax and hear what you want to share.
Change Your View
Another tool that works well is to adjust your view of people, events, or things to make them seem more or less powerful. What would happen if you visualized the troubling person in front of you as a:
- 2 year old having a tantrum
- Cartoon character
- Character in a fairy tale or myth
- Someone in a movie or TV show
- Mouse sized version of themselves with a little squeaky voice
You can flip the view and use these tools in a loving way that brings forward compassion for the other person, by seeing them as:
- The beautiful baby or child they once were
- A hissing cat that is afraid and really just wants to be loved
Visualizing words flashing on their foreheads like hurt, afraid, insecure, or sad, can also help you feel more understanding and diminish the impact their actions have on you.
The most powerful way to view yourself and the people around you is to remember that we are all souls. Our souls are perfect, but they get covered up by our fears, pain, and reactions to the things that happen in our lives. Remembering the true nature of the troubled and troublesome people around you can support you in interacting in a more comfortable and loving way.
Cliques and Teams
If your family is composed of opposing groups that gossip and challenge each other, the best way to be with them is to stay neutral. Do not step into agreement with either group or gossip about the other unless you are very clear that you want to be on a certain side.
The Bigger Picture
There is a school of thought that says our souls are sent to this earth to learn lessons that will advance us spiritually. Our closest relationships are the best teachers of those lessons and that means your family, too. So, when you feel upset about something someone in your family does, keep in mind that it may be an opportunity for you to heal, learn, or grow spiritually. There is likely a much bigger picture than what you are able to see in the moment.
The Inner Work
When you get upset or react to things it is a signal that there is something inside of you waiting to be healed or resolved. Yes, people do bad things – and that is their issue. But, the feelings that come up inside of you are yours. The more you are aware of your internal reactions and work through them, the more peaceful you will feel in all situations. This is what I call the Inner Work and it is the path to real freedom.
The Stories You Tell Yourself
As you travel through life you take on stories that you believe are true. Many of these stories were installed when you were a child, possibly by your family, culture, school, or religion. There are also ones that you choose willingly to embrace.
While some of these stories may be uplifting, the ones that impact your relationships with family generally are not. If you watch carefully, you can see these stories influencing not only your thoughts, feelings and behavior, but that of your family members as well.
Some of the common limiting stories include:
- Life is hard
- Gender roles
- Being unworthy or unlovable
- A harsh and judging God
- Our family is …
- You must conform in order to…
- People with money are selfish/evil/against us/etc.
- You are less than because of your race, appearance, net worth, gender or….
- You will be judged and found wanting
- People will take advantage of you
- Being thin/rich/beautiful is better
You get the idea. Limiting stories are misbeliefs that keep you from being your best self. Once you become aware of them, they can be challenged. Simply ask yourself:
- Do I know absolutely beyond a shadow of doubt that this is true?
- Could someone else believe something different? (If so, it’s probably not true.)
- How does this story make me feel?
- How does it limit me?
- What is the truth?
- How would it feel to adopt that as my new story?
- What might be possible for me if I did?
- Am I willing to shift from the old story to the new?
Labels and Judgments
I had a doctor once tell me a family member had undiagnosed bipolar disease. The diagnosis made sense at the time based on some of the things I experienced with her. This label became like a mantra for me and infiltrated my stories. It allowed me to feel like a victim and gave me a great excuse to not move forward in my life. The label and story served me well until one day, I just realized I wanted something different and let it go. Releasing it opened my world and gave me a powerful sense of freedom, as well as a loving relationship with the family member I had judged.
You have probably felt the sting of labels and judgments placed on you by others and even have awareness of some you place on yourself. Whether they seem positive or negative, labels can be incredibly powerful.
In families all of the common labels may be at play:
Appearance: fat, thin, little, cute, red head, ugly, pretty, handsome, beautiful, looks like….
Personality: funny, quiet, outgoing, loud, stern, judgmental, cynical, happy, controlling, serious
Expectation Labels: smart, perfect, talented, disabled, athletic, the future football player/engineer/etc.
There are also labels around each person’s role or place in the family, like:
- Responsible first child
- Naughty middle child
- Angry one – sad one – sickly one – drama queen
- Problem child
- Too anything
- The strict parent – easy going parent
- The one who sacrifices for the family
- And, the one about whom they always say – here comes trouble!
Buying into labels about the people around you limits your experience of who they are. People will often comply and play the role, hiding their other positive traits. They may become so entrenched in the role, that they never live the lives they were meant to. Buying into labels about yourself and your role in the family can be even more dangerous.
Most labels carry the energy of some form of judgment and no one wins when judgment is at play. It can impact the self-esteem and life path of the person judged, and on some level, the person who is doing the judging will suffer too. Deep inside they will know it is out of alignment with their soul integrity.
The key here is to be aware when people do things you are not comfortable with and realize that what they do is not who they are. Start paying attention to the many ways that judgments and labels play out in your life. Who do you judge? Who judges you? Who does your family, religion, culture, political party, or gender judge?
When you bring awareness to these judgments and question them, the door opens to letting them go. Give people around you the space to become more than their last actions or what others say about them. You will find yourself less reactive and able to respond to challenging behavior in a more neutral way. You may also have the pleasure of witnessing them growing into their best selves as they feel less judged. Everyone has the opportunity to win.
Someone once said, “Holding on to anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” Not forgiving someone means you are drinking the poison. You are in more pain than they are. And, as long as you hold onto the hurt or anger you are tethered to that person and they are controlling you.
Think about it. How much of your life energy is spent feeling angry, like a victim, and marinating in emotional pain? Is that what you want for yourself?
Here are some things to remember:
- Your feeling miserable does not do anything to the other person
- What they did is about them and has nothing to do with who you are
- There is something in their history that brought them to that point
- In many cases, their intentions were not meant to hurt you
- Holding on to this is hurting you and possibly the ones you love
Forgiving someone does not mean that you are saying what they did was okay. It simply means that you are choosing to put it in the past and free yourself.
- Write a letter to them, releasing your anger and pain onto the paper. Let it all out. After the letter is complete, tear it up and burn it. Watch the feelings that have been controlling you go up in smoke and visualize letting it all go.
- Take time each day to think about the person who hurt you and send them love, until it gets easy.
- Give it to God through prayer
- Think about the situation that hurt you until you start to feel emotional. Notice where in your body the pain is centered. Move that pain into your heart and form an intention to let it go. Take a deep breath and let the pain and anger flow out of you with your exhalation. If you can’t let it all go, just clear what you can.
- Get quiet and breathe deeply. Imagine a beautiful white light or the feeling of love surrounding you. Breathe it into your heart.
- If the incident is from your childhood, write a letter to your child self, sharing how courageous you think they were, that you will protect them now, and how much you love them.
- Create a list of things you can do that bring you joy and well-being. They might be things like art, sports, a hot bath, meditation, prayer, or walking in nature. Choose something off this list to do for yourself every day.
- Start a daily practice of looking in your eyes in a mirror and telling yourself, “I love you.”
There are many ways that you can nurture yourself and I encourage you to create a self- nurturing plan that speaks to your heart and implement daily practices that lift you up.
Ready – Set – Go
Your tool chest is now full of ideas that will help you create more safety and freedom for yourself when your family gets together for the holidays. You are likely to find that when your heart is clear, open, and protected, you can appreciate those you love and join in the fun. Happy Holidays!
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Copyright 2013: Linda Luke
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Please Note: This product is not intended as a substitute for seeking professional or counseling assistance. The information is provided without guarantee of any kind, either express or implied and the tools are to be used at your own risk. Every situation is different. Linda Luke, nor any other party involved with the product, shall be liable for actions taken or not taken by readers or the consequences of those actions. Participants are fully responsible for their own choices and results.