How To Not Lose Your Sh*t With Your Extended Family This Holiday

by Lindsay Wolf
Courtesy of Lindsay Wolf

Of all the challenges that the holidays bring, prioritizing my mental health is by far the hardest. My husband and I like to take the Santa Claus game to epic proportions, resulting in a last-minute hustle to make extra money for gifts. Every single year, I feel obligated to buy elaborate presents for all the people I love, like, or just put up with. And I think we can all relate to the FOMO vibe that runs through my household as I try to jam pack as many family-friendly traditions as possible into a single month.

But none of these obstacles pale in comparison to the cluster fuck known as going “home for the holidays.”

I grew up with a ridiculously dysfunctional family, and Christmas often felt like a tinsel-ridden Band-Aid that got placed over our pain every year. From a young age, my mom would encourage me to “soak up every moment,” and squeeze out every ounce of quality time we could. Which made sense, because my parents got viciously divorced when my siblings and I were just kids. The eternal conflict of “mom vs. dad” led to an awkward combo of being forcibly estranged from my father’s side of the fam, while also being pushed to socialize with the erratic members of my mother’s small family.

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So for every merry moment we’d collectively enjoy, I spent a bunch more knowing I’d need the rest of the year to mentally recover.

As a young girl with zero expertise in boundaries and an abundance of people-pleasing energy, I used to go to great lengths to accommodate loved ones no matter how much it ripped me apart inside. When comments were made about my ever-changing body, I’d allow them with a smile. If a creepy family member grazed the area just above my ass while we talked, I’d stay quiet about it. And as soon as my aunt’s explosive tirades began to feel less eccentric and more like the end of times, I’d hide in a closet with my young cousins and pretend like it wasn’t happening.

Now that I’m a mom in my thirties who has half a dozen years of therapy under her belt, I know better. After healing from a year of suicidal ideation, grappling with a surprise PTSD diagnosis, and finally recovering from decades of disordered eating, I can easily say that my mental health is my primary focus moving forward. I have survived some shit, and it’s high time I start prioritizing my overall wellbeing. So this year, I’ll be putting my own goddamn oxygen mask on first before I help anybody else. And I plan to live my best life while those halls get fucking decked, thank you very much.

Since I’ll be spending Christmas with my family for the first time in a long while, I’ve been thinking about ways to keep the peace internally before ever trying – and potentially failing – to maintain peace within my home. In the process, I’ve come up with a few handy dandy tips to slice and dice through any annoying holiday confrontation. I’m obviously not a psychologist or anything, but just a woman with nothing left to lose other than her own limiting beliefs and inner shame. So while these tips may work just fine for my particular situation, full disclaimer: they aren’t intended to be a mental health one-size-fits-all game plan.

1. I’m going to remind myself that I can always take space.

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This is a big one, because it’s taken me a long ass time to even realize I have the freedom to walk away if the metaphorical kitchen gets overheated. I’m going to quite literally step out of my house, walk around, look up at the sky, and breathe out my feels if it ever seems like panic just jumped into the driver’s seat. Maybe I’ll announce that I’m doing a solo coffee run and haul ass to the car so I can Starbucks-and-chill alone. We never have to stay in a situation that makes us feel like shit, and I’m going to remember this if a loved one begins pressuring me to talk about something I don’t want to or if I get unsolicited and unwelcome criticism.

2. I’m going to create a hefty buffer between me and the human beings who share my DNA.

Courtesy of Lindsay Wolf

This can be achieved by creating a “teamwork makes the dreamwork” mentality with my spouse. I’ll be having some vulnerable, but necessary, talks with my husband well before anyone else shows up to our home, so that we can be on the same page should shit hit the fan. And hell, maybe we’ll even create a nifty code phrase like “could you bring in the extra La Croix six-pack from the car, babe?” when it all gets to be too much. Because let’s face it, I’m addicted to seltzer and will always have some tasty cans stored in our trunk.

3. I’m also going to have my therapist on speed dial.

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Same for the women in my life who have the honor of being a part of my inner circle of trust. I’ll also most likely lean on the Facebook groups I’ve found that are designated for trauma survivors. Not to mention the kick ass mom friend who lives next door and never gets annoyed with me venting about life. Bottom line, I won’t keep my feelings locked away inside like I’m some sort of a human pressure cooker. I’ll make sure I have resources around me to help normalize my emotions and stop me from feeling like my family is trying to do a live-action version of “Die Hard.”

4. Potentially my most favorite lil’ gem will be affirming my needs and maintaining boundaries, even if it makes someone else a little (or a lot) uncomfortable.

Courtesy of Lindsay Wolf

It always feels like the holidays are a time when everyone is trying to pretend everything is totally fine. But inevitably, those spinning plates start to crash — and when they do, we always have a choice. We can choose to suffer in silence as Uncle Ted secretly pats our butt, or when Grandma Betty asks us when we’re planning to lose the pregnancy weight. Or we can gently and firmly ask Ted to stop, and tell Betty that we’re actually happy as we are.

Saying something honest yet respectful may result in epic discomfort for all. But if we can just breathe through it and remember that the holidays are as temporary as a root canal, we just might be able to peacefully assert ourselves during the most inconvenient times. If you do employ this most daring of tactics, please remember that what you do after you make a boundary is your fucking business. You can choose to say things gracefully, politely excuse yourself, and walk away. Or you can use your eyes to send silent laser beams of ferocity at Uncle Ted until he walks away.

In case you need the reminder, the simple act of walking away and taking space from the people around you is a powerful boundary in and of itself.

5. Finally, I will remember that family-laden holidays are not mandatory, no matter how much pressure I may feel to make them seem that way.

I do not have to partake in visiting loved ones who leave me feeling terrible about myself or remind me of my complicated past. I don’t have to invite everyone to the party, and I don’t have to attend every party I’m invited to. To have a very Merry Christmas, all I really need are my kids and spouse in our holiday jammies watching Elf. Everything else is up for negotiation. As severe as this last tip may sound, it can be lifesaving for those of us who have survived traumatic upbringings.

You deserve to enjoy this special time of year without guilt, self-loathing, or impossible expectations. And if you’ve worked hard to heal yourself, you also deserve to keep unnecessary conflict and stress at the door. You’re a grown ass adult now, and you get to decide who has earned the right to celebrate the big, shiny moments with you. You should never need to feel like you’ve got to reach down into someone else’s sinking ship and pull them up, so that you can feel loved around this time of year. Instead, sit your festive ass down in the sand, grab a fruity drink, and wave to them from the shore.