Let’s be honest, the holidays are meant to be wonderful and a time of joy, but often they’re fraught with discomfort, worry, and uncomfortable situations. I have spoken with countless individuals who experience a lot of anxiety and depression around the holidays and I wanted to create a “survival guide” of sorts. This is by no means comprehensive and I am sure I will build upon it. So here are a few topics I would like to touch upon with some possible ideas to help you feel like you’re surviving the holidays a touch better. Please be away that this is not a guide for those who have severe and persistent mental health issues, this is not a one size fits all, and I highly recommend everyone to seek out their own mental health professional to aid them through their tough times.
According to some studies, at least 30 million people in the United States suffer from some form of eating disorder. Not only this, but for every person with an eating disorder there are numerous individuals who struggle with disordered eating habits that are not pronounced enough to qualify them as having an eating disorder. Around the holidays there can be a lot of pressure to eat profusely, to eat things you don’t like, to joyfully eat, and to be grateful to those around you. For those who struggle with a poor relationship with food, this can be uncomfortable at best and excruciating and triggering at worst.
I believe it is important to try and find an ally prior to holiday gatherings, if possible, and to have a plan going into them.
If you have an ally, a supportive individual whom you trust, then consider setting aside some time to contact them and discuss your concerns about the events. You can preface the conversation by expressing your specific needs: do you need empathy, solution ideas, or a combination of the two? You have the opportunity here to also ask for help and to discuss exact ways in which someone can support you.
If you do not have an ally then preparing as much as you can is key. If you are gathering with those who you know and have encountered before then you can scan back to problematic scenarios that have happened for you in the past. You are able at this point to determine what you’ve tried before and what has and has not worked for you. Boundaries are some of the hardest things we can set but also the best way we can take care of ourselves. Look at what boundaries will keep you safe emotionally/physically, measure the pros and cons for setting these boundaries (and the worst possible, best possible, and most likely outcomes from setting them), and come up with a plan for implementing them.
It is not unlikely for those experiencing issues with food to encounter situations like being pressured into eating, being criticized for eating “too little” or “too much”, feelings of guilt when it comes to eating, or possible loss of control and bingeing. Boundaries in anticipation of these might look like boundaries for self (“I am going to use mindful eating techniques when eating so I can appreciate the food I consume” “I will change my self talk from considering foods good or bad and instead look at them as more energy dense versus less energy dense” “If I feel sad/guilty/anxious/etc. I will engage in my coping skills of deep breathing, using my five senses, journaling, meditating, getting space, etc.” “If ___ happens I will choose to excuse myself from the room or I will leave” “I will review the skills and techniques my therapist and I have established previously before going into the situation so they’re fresh and on my mind”) or boundaries for others (taking someone aside to discuss expectations you may have of them like “I do not wish to talk about my eating habits, should you have concerns please approach me later and in private”, indicating to someone that you will leave should your feelings not be respected, saying “no”). Setting boundaries is difficult, but it is the way in which we serve ourselves best. It is okay if you are unable to set boundaries for others but I would recommend at least setting boundaries for yourself.
Touching and the expectation of touching (hugs, kisses, sitting closely together, etc.) is something that many people experience and struggle with during holidays, particularly when it comes to older relatives.
First and foremost, never force a child to hug or kiss you or anyone else. Children are not dolls for us to force contact on, they are living human beings who deserve to set their own physical boundaries. If someone tries to push contact on a child and it is a situation in which “no” is not sufficient, try to offer other forms of contact that are more acceptable such as a hand shake, high five, fist bump, pat on the shoulder, etc.
Children are not the only autonomous beings that deserve to set limits, however. I do recommend things that I have already mentioned in the eating section: find an ally if you can to feel supported and/or have them run interference, set boundaries for yourself, plan how to speak to people (preferably before the contact happens) about what boundaries you are setting, why, and what will occur should they not be respected (and be willing to follow through with this). Above all else, remember that you are your number one priority. Your emotions and your body are your responsibility, and, while we should do our best not to hurt others, nobody else’s emotions are under your control or responsibility.
You likely know which family members/loved ones are the worst offenders about physical contact, plan accordingly. Also remember that you can always fall back on your own coping skills, even if you need to feign an upset stomach and head to the bathroom for a while to get some space!
In Laws/Family Conflict
Ahh, the age old issue of dealing with those you desperately want to be peaceful with and loved by who just didn’t seem to get the same memo. I hate to be the bearer of bad news (which you probably already knew) but we cannot control anyone else’s emotions or affection toward us. There is some introspective work we can do to try and mitigate conflict but that’s about it.
For this, I would say the first thing to address is evaluating repeated conflicts you and this person/these people have had before. If they are repeated then you can take measures to either avoid the topic, address it differently, have someone intervene (or discuss roles/expectations with your significant other regarding these topics), or how to perform damage control after the fact. We cannot control others, they may bring up the issue and they may work themselves up but people cannot fight against someone who is truly trying to understand. If you can come from a place of curiosity and love instead of frustration and the tendency to retort then you may find it shifts the conversation. Most people just want to feel heard and understood, if you can pick a single piece of what they’re saying to connect to then you have a shot at diffusing the situation.
Feeling sad or upset in some way because you are not as accepted as you wish is normal, and you’re absolutely allowed to feel that way. Feelings are neither good nor bad, what we do with them is good or bad. Look at your emotions, look as what you do with them. Do you honor yourself and allow yourself to feel or do you shut them down? Do you allow your sadness to turn into rage and lash out at others? Do you allow your feelings to swamp you (not because feelings are not powerful, right here I mean do you not use coping skills to try and bring your emotions to a more manageable level) and keep you from being able to find some good in the day?
Staying true to your own values and needs is important, try to identify what you need in these situations to manage what you feel. In terms of conflict, try to realize that nobody deserves the right and power to ruin your day. Remember that your emotions and what you do with them are solely under your control, take that power back from those who wish to leech that from you.
Being Away From Loved Ones
Oh adulting, how much of a cruel mistress you can be. Whether it’s due to being in a romantic partnership and you have to split days between families, your job will not allow you to have time off, it’s too expensive to travel to them, having to choose sides in a divorce, or any number of reasons.
We can choose in these moments to wallow (totally okay, as long as you recognize it’s a choice!) or we can choose to make the best of it. This is an opportunity to make your own traditions surrounding the holidays or to adjust those that we have taken forward since childhood. Traditions could be something like a song, a type of food to consume, a tree, or a movie/book. Some people may choose to watch horror films on Christmas (or something more traditional, Die Hard, anyone?), some decide to make a family recipe that has been passed down, the world is your oyster, my friend.
In these days we thankfully have access to technology that can ease our distance. Consider setting up a Skype or FaceTime session with a loved one. You could also consider writing a letter to them for you to share or keep to yourself. Perhaps reminiscing about holidays in the past is more your style, and that is okay too.
At the end of the day, nothing will replace being with those you wish to join with on the holidays and that is okay, but you can choose how you spend your time.
Many of us have lost someone and that loss can be acute during the holidays. When it comes to grieving I would say to remember the stages of grief: denial, bargaining, sadness, anger, and acceptance. We can shift between these at any time, no matter how long ago the loss occurred. It is completely acceptable to feel anything that you experience at this time, remember that.
I think the analogy of the ball and the box is something I was introduced to by @LaurenHerschel on Twitter. How she explained it is thus (somewhat interpreted to be better suited : when a loss has occurred there is a box and on the inside of the box is a pain button. A ball also exists within the box. When a loss is fresh, the ball is huge and you are unable to move without it hitting the pain button, you cannot control it, the pain is immense and constant. Over time, the ball shrinks down so it doesn’t hit the button nearly as often, but when it does it hurts just as much as before.
It may be hard to feel jolly or excited during the holidays, and that’s okay. You are more than allowed to feel what you feel. That being said, you can also create a tradition to honor that person during the holidays. Ideas for remembrance are leaving a chair empty for them, lighting a special candle, discussing happy memories of them, or doing something that they truly loved. There is nothing that will eliminate that pain button, and your ball may feel bigger around the holidays so you experience that pain more frequently.
Honoring yourself, your own boundaries (for self or others), and knowing that your emotions are completely valid no matter what is something I tell everyone. You get to dictate how your holidays go, nobody else gets that power unless you give it to them. Do not give away your own agency and power, and never regret taking care of yourself. You are your primary responsibility. If you have children it is totally acceptable to put these things in place and teach them about them, you can combine taking care of yourself and teaching your little ones to take care of themselves in their own way.
Please remember to respect the needs and boundaries of others, as well, no matter their age. Sometimes we get so caught up in our own struggles we do forget to pay attention to others’. That does not mean you do not deserve to feel what you feel, or to play “who has it worse”, it simply means to maintain your sense of empathy.
If nothing else, please remember this:
You are worthy of love. You are deserving of peace. And you can make this holiday season what you wish it to be, internally.