It’s the holidays!

I have listened these past weeks to my patients about how they are anticipating the season; everything from looking forward to it, to fearing pure chaos, to expecting complete authoritarian rule.

Perhaps they anticipate relatives fighting one another, swearing they won’t come if so-and-so is there. Or they fear that old wounds that were never resolved will creep or even blast their way into the present.  Some have families whose holiday is strictly planned and extremely orchestrated with gilt to the hilt and every last spoon and dessert fork in place.

There are plenty of families that do manage to find and even maintain a common ground, including a comfort level with each other that seems to abide; any issues that might exist are managed.

What’s going on? Families are supposed to be our buttress. Our go-to. Our safe asylum. That is the case for the lucky, but many families are flawed because people are flawed. Many people in this season grieve the family that should or could have been while dealing with the family that is, whether that means dealing with serious problems or irritating disappointments.

Aunt Jennifer will sip too much eggnog, and say something nasty to you or worse, one of your children. Grandma Serena will demand that all the family gather at her house when you would rather start Christmas traditions in your own home. Cousin Jacob will show up unexpectedly, right as you are about to take twenty minutes for yourself, to “sit and visit.” Your father-in-law will chide without a thank you or a smile, “You gave me too much food again. I can’t eat that much.”

What can help you through?

1) Use an “observer” stance.

This is when you subtly detach from the goings-on of the day. Not that you are not involved or friendly, but you observe yourself and others almost as if you were going to write a report on your own family, “My Family Interactions At The Holiday.”

It keeps your perspective more objective.

2) Don’t over-personalize.

Remind yourself of what you know about the people in your family that makes them act the way they do – that has nothing to do with you. “What do I know about my brother that might cause him to not give me a hug that isn’t about me? He is unhappy in his marriage. He may be depressed. Maybe he didn’t shower…”

If you can answer the question, you are more likely to shrug a hurtful behavior off so it doesn’t ruin your day.

3) Realize if your own reactions are suspect.

Maybe you yourself are a little controlling, or not very go with the flow. Maybe you are feeling bad about yourself, having a rough time, and are more sensitive at the moment. Maybe you’re plain exhausted.

If you take responsibility for your own potential to take things the wrong way or be difficult, then your half of any problem will be much easier to admit. It’s not easy to accept that you’re perhaps the link between conflict with others, but holding up an honest mirror to yourself can be helpful.

4) Look for the good.

Most folks get up in the morning with the intent to live their lives the best they can that day. If you focus on what is good about people, then that will grow in your mind. You will be able to notice those things and enjoy the relationship.

There are definitely exceptions to this, for example: people with sociopathic or abusive behaviors, those that seem to live to manipulate or deride others, or those that have addictions that are out of control. If you have someone like this in your family, there is a problem that is much more significant than a simple holiday disappointment. Please reach out and talk to someone who could help you figure out a strategy for some kind of action.

5) Hang out with your family of choice.

Our friends are our family of choice — the one you’ve created all on your own. They can often provide what your family of origin won’t or isn’t capable of offering. If you can absorb those things from your good friends, then whatever pain or issue you have with your biological family will not feel as intense. Disappointing perhaps, but not as hurtful.

So breathe. Be mindful. Love where you can. Enjoy what there is to enjoy. Relax a little.

May you have a meaningful and peaceful holiday season.


You can hear more about relationships and many other topics by listening to my podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford. Subscribe to my website and receive one weekly newsletter including my weekly blog post and podcast! If you’d like to join my FaceBook closed group, then click here and answer the membership questions! Welcome!

My new book entitled Perfectly Hidden Depression has arrived and you can order here! Its message is specifically for those with a struggle with strong perfectionism which acts to mask underlying emotional pain. But the many self-help techniques described can be used by everyone who chooses to begin to address emotions long hidden away that are clouding and sabotaging your current life.

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Originally published on December 22, 2017; updated on December 22, 2019.

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