In the month between November 26 and December 25 something odd happens: Crazy families get crazier.
Giving Thanks, Spreading Light, Celebrating Culture, and Wishing for Peace on Earth are often replaced by the dread and fear of family fireworks.
Few families really are incident-free, although we figure it’s just ours that’s as dysfunctional as it is. While it might seem more comfortable to exclude certain family members to avoid celebratory disruption, what actually happens may be disrupting as well.
The classic struggle between expectations of “the way it should be” vs. “the way it really is” sets us up to have unhealthy negative emotions like sadness, guilt, anger, dread, and avoidance.
Shake the sugar plums out of your head and re-think your guilt:
The Throwback Effect: Traditions, celebrated the same every year may be a reminder of past hurts, inviting behaviors that go way back. Fight the impulse to side with your family against your partner; keeping communication open is crucial. Not everyone is happy at the holidays; no one has to be.
The Hallmark Effect: U.S. companies will spend billions and billions of dollars on advertising this season, primarily on social media and television, to sell consumers on the notion that a perfect holiday can be purchased. Movies — another holiday “tradition” — portray traumatizing family events as either funny or touching. The constant stream of warm and fuzzy can lead to a very real mental health plague called holiday depression.
3 Monkeys Effect: Pretending that crazy behavior isn’t crazy only makes you look crazy. Minimizing reality for the sake of others’ comfort makes everyone uncomfortable. Being honest is appropriate, even though ’tis the season for pretending everything is as it should be.
Forewarned, Forearmed: Chat with the potential offender beforehand. Say why you’d like them to join everyone else even as you set boundaries for acceptable behavior. Here’s the important part: Quietly stick to the boundaries you set. If you won’t, the offensive behavior is bound to be repeated and you and your guests are bound to be disrespected — again.
Cut the Drama: It’s not like you’re surprised so don’t act like it. Being dramatic about something you expect perpetuates bad feelings between people, who are likely to take sides. This is one way that horrible holidays have become part of your family’s tradition.
Handing out explosives: Alcohol and stress are a bad combination. Bad stress makes everything worse; alcohol makes crazy worse. If you fuel trouble, it will come. Monitor the flow of booze if you want to avoid a bad scene.
Change It Up: Change the usual setting or location, menu, focus of the day or even the day itself. Get away from a personal, claustrophobic focus in order to re-focus outward to community — friends, neighbors, even strangers. Take turns hosting; share the day’s responsibilities (being sure to include children); organize a neighborhood carol-sing, skating party or sleigh ride; volunteer; stay home and forge your nuclear family’s traditions; go on a Christmas tree hunt; or choose an activity that centers on the holiday’s meaning, are all examples of refocusing.
Come Down Easy: The time and money spent preparing for, and celebrating, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and Christmas is disproportional to the let-down felt when all that’s left is the mess. Remembering how that feels might be incentive to celebrate in other, less costly but more rewarding, ways.
Take a Nap. The day will wear you out so come rested to it, especially if you have a disability or chronic illness. Add a few minutes to steal away, catch your breath and renew your smile.
No other time of year is as fraught with “shoulds”. As with much of what’s difficult in life — leaving certain people out in the cold at holiday time — is a hard choice to make. It’s reasonable to feel guilt and sadness and to feel guilty and sad because you feel guilt and sadness.
What’s important is that you acknowledge the situation and your struggle with it. You don’t have to do anything. There’s always next year and the crazies are likely to happen again.
Kathe Skinner is a Marriage & Family therapist in Colorado Springs where she lives with her husband David and their two hooligan cats.
Cartoon © Donna Barstow, 2015 Used with Permission
© 2015 Being Head LLC