The holidays can be a joyous, celebratory time, but not always. Not for everyone.  As therapists, this is our busiest time of year. We hear from clients we haven’t seen in months who would like an extra session, trying to prepare for a disappointment, stressful family time, or low mood that accompanies the holidays for them. Much of the difficulty stems from childhood holidays, family time fraught with conflict or disappointment or pain. Our clients often describe holiday scenarios that do not look like a Norman Rockwell print, where they do not feel welcome or comfortable to visit.  Even so, there can be a sense of duty during the holiday season to see family even when it hurts, simply what is expected.

For those of you that come from loving, healthy homes, it can be confusing when friends or coworkers share their dread or avoidance of the holidays.  You probably take great care to visit and enjoy your family which is a wonderful gift and we wouldn’t want you to change a thing. Of course it is important to be present for family, to see one another and enjoy the connection and history you share with family members.  At the same time, not everyone has easy family interactions. You are not required to put yourself in harm’s way this holiday season.  When it comes to holidays, we have more control than we realize. For those who are not looking forward to the holidays with family, we would like to offer an alternative.

If visiting family is harmful to your mental health, you have choices. You can choose not to visit. You can choose to limit the visit to something more manageable, perhaps a restricted period of time. As we’ve said before, you get credit for showing up, but not extra credit for staying longer.  Setting expectations for yourself and your family can help. We strongly suggest letting family know your plans and letting them know you will leave early or that plans will be different than the previous year. A simple heads up can make the visit run smoother and be more positive.

The concept of ‘family of choice’ versus ‘family of circumstance’ has been a liberating mindset for many of our clients.  Throughout our lives, we often meet people who are special and feel like family. It is these friendships that sustain us, help us survive through the good and the bad, and make us feel good about ourselves. This is our ‘family of choice’.  They can be childhood friends, coworkers, an ex-partner, neighbor, really anyone. These individuals become part of our family, our family of choice, and hold a special spot in our lives. At the end of the day, it is often these relationships that matter most in our lives. Many clients have needed this discussion and even permission to include these people in their own family celebrations – either inviting them home, or making a tradition of holidays with them, especially when far from family or don’t have that family of circumstance to visit.

We encourage everyone to play an active role in planning their holiday and expanding the idea of what could be possible. Giving yourself permission to make new traditions with your family of choice, having more say in how you spend your holiday, can be freeing and the start of something incredibly meaningful.

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