Mary Foston-English, MFT, is the assistant director of Stanford’s Faculty and Staff Help Center. BeWell asked Mary to lend guidance to those of us who feel our anxiety barometers rise as soon as the words “family holiday” are uttered at this time of year.
What makes family relationships complicated?
Family relationships are complicated because of the expectation that “we are all the same” because we’re part of the same family. The expectations we have of each other (because we’re related) can make it difficult to “be ourselves,” especially if we have different values and goals than do other family members. Because of pre-established roles of who we are supposed to be and how we are supposed to act (based on gender, birth order, family rules, family rituals), family systems do not always give us the space to be who we are.
Families are “systems,” and when change occurs within that system or outside of it, the balance/equilibrium is upset. Keeping that balance is complicated because change is inevitable; people do change and grow in spite of the pressure to conform and keep the balance. Visualize a hanging wind chime with several connected parts and imagine what happens when one of the pieces/parts is missing. The most immediate “fix” is to replace that part in order to maintain the balance.
Why is this more challenging during the holidays?
Expectations are elevated during the holidays because of family rituals and assumptions about “how the holidays are supposed to be.” Some of the assumptions we have about the holidays include:
Returning home or being with family when one has changed, and when one’s values/expectations about the holidays are now different, can be stressful. It’s easier sometimes to just “go along” with “the way it’s always been” rather than “rock the boat.”
People want to belong and feel connected during the holidays. This desire can be so strong that we overextend ourselves emotionally, physically and financially. Examples of this include the following:
Mobility factors are sometimes overlooked because it’s expected — family tradition demands one to be with a particular family member. Or, there’s no family tradition, and the anxiety about “Whose turn is it this year?” makes things unpredictable and leads to last-minute planning — which can create a different kind of stress.
Positive and natural changes in the family system — such as a wedding or birth of a child — can also challenge the rituals/expectations, although there are pressures to keep things the same. Holidays can highlight everything that may have changed (divorce, death, college student returning home, absence due to military duty) and if family rules are to not talk about or talk too much about these things, it adds to the stress of the holidays.
The sameness of holiday gatherings can be monotonous, and monotony can spawn its own set of stressors.
How can I make a positive change this year?
Here are several tips. Choosing any one of these can make for a more enjoyable holiday season:
Everyone seems to have that one relative who makes things difficult. Do you have any survival tips for dealing with that relative?
Every family has at least one “toxic relative.” Because of the expectation of being together during the holidays, there’s pressure to “put up” with someone you’d generally avoid. Those same old family rules also dictate what, if anything, you can do other than just show up and pretend to have a good time. If this is someone who holds a grudge or with whom you have had a disagreement, try contacting them before the holidays and begin talking to them about the disagreement — either via email, letter or phone call. Reaching out beforehand will help minimize the stress and awkwardness during the holidays. Remember that just because you might want to resolve the expectation, the other person may not want to do the same.
Are there other issues that add to family stress during the holidays?
Yes. In addition to what was discussed previously, tough issues that get even tougher over the holidays include the following:
What are the main family issues you see in your practice?
The Faculty and Staff Help Center sees individuals with a variety of issues. The majority of people seen here come in with relationship issues (primarily adult relationship issues, but also parent/child and/or family issues), closely followed by emotional issues such as depression, anxiety, self-esteem, anger management, grief/loss, job stress, work-life balance and elder care issues. While we see most anyone dealing with stressors in their life, if we’re not able to see them we provide referrals and resources.
... any final thoughts?
In a 12-step recovery program, there’s an acronym, HALT, which stands for hungry, angry, lonely, tired. If any one of these describes your demeanor, you are at risk for relapse. I think this can be applied to anyone at any time, but especially during the holidays. When you feel any one of these, take time to stop, breathe, and take care of yourself — and the holidays will be much more enjoyable and manageable!
Interview conducted by Julie Croteau and edited by Lane McKenna Ryan.