Preparing for the Holidays

Family gatherings can be great, but they can just renew and deepen old wounds.

We all know that the holidays are coming soon. For most, they consist of family gatherings, traditions and church events. Commercials suggest that everyone happily spends the holidays with smiling friends and family, while roasting chestnuts over an open fire. Don’t know about you, but I’ve never roasted chestnuts.

When relationships are positive and healthy, family gatherings are wonderful. We see people we’ve not seen in a while. We reconnect, update on our lives and reminisce. It feels warm and comfortable.

But what about when relationships are not so healthy? Sometimes, holiday gatherings are marked by new conflicts, a continuation of tensions, or reminders of old wounds. In those times, old hurts are deepened.

One of my all-time favorite Christmas cards was given to me by a client. On the front, it had a beautiful picture of a house, decorated for Christmas and covered with snow. The words above the picture said, “I’ll be home for Christmas.” When you opened it up, it said, “And in therapy for the next year.” I love the card because it is so often true.

Sometimes, people visit family with the hope that, this time things will be different. They imagine that the distant parent will be more loving, that the critical parent will be more accepting, or that the sibling will just be nicer. When this doesn’t happen, they leave with greater frustration and pain.

It reminds me a little of Charlie Brown, Lucy and the football. Each fall, she promises him she won’t jerk the ball away. He wants to believe her so he tries again to kick it. She pulls the ball away and, once again, he falls flat on his back. He keeps going back and keeps getting the same result.

So, what can you do when your family gatherings are marked by conflict? First, prepare yourself mentally. Recognize that those people will probably be the same, so you don’t have the false hope that they will be good this year. Second, try to remember that their behavior reflects who they are, not who you are. They are simply acting like themselves. Finally, search for and pay attention to the positive moments. Even in a troubled family, there are usually positive moments. Focus your attention on the people who are healthy. You’ll have a better holiday.

I'm a psychologist, who helps people who have sustained self-esteem wounds from past negative experiences, overcome those wounds and experience a more positive self-worth, so they can live more joyful and satisfying lives.