How Do I Deal With My Dysfunctional Family During the Holidays?
I have a knot in my stomach and I’m hoping you can help. As you may know, Christmas is right around the corner. Given that reality, I’m finishing up finals and getting ready to fly home to be with my family for Christmas. This is the problem. My relationship with my family is, to put it mildly, strained. Yet I have a plane ticket and will be going into the lion’s den for a week, and I’m sick about it. How do I deal with this?
“Oh there’s no place like home, for the holidays!” was written by someone who lives a life that a lot of people just can’t understand. I mean really, is there a family in the world that is like the ones in Folger’s Coffee commercials? You know the ones I’m talking about. Like the one where the brother surprises the sister by coming home from Africa, and then they proceed to gaze romantically at each other (weird, by the way) and sip on coffee. Or this one where the grandma is seen making Folger’s Coffee and holding her grandchild so her son can sleep in. Then, when the son finally drags himself out of bed, he gazes fondly (still weird) at his mom and they drink coffee.
Families like this just don’t seem to be real. What is real for so many is what you’ve expressed, Blue; that making the ritualistic pilgrimage to stress-Mecca for Christmas is hard. And truly, I’m sorry you’re staring down this barrell, yet again.
If I may, I have a few ideas for how you can make the most of this time. And while I’m certain my ideas won’t fix everything, maybe they’ll help ease the pain a bit.
Listen, Blue, I don’t know the specifics of your family dynamics. So please forgive me if the following comes off as insensitive to your plight. However, in general, I think so much of what we dread is based on some collection, projection and possibly even exaggeration of past experiences.
For example, you may have had a fight with your dad last year over the fact that you decided to change majors—again. This fight wounded you, and now has you dreading that a similar experience awaits you on the other end of a flight. However, you don’t know that it’ll happen. You may have a hunch, but it’s not certain that you will fight. In this case, I think that raising expectations may be helpful. Because dreading that which we don’t know to be true is basically a long way of describing anxiety. And anxiety does nothing for anyone except cause them to fear. You don’t need fear. It may be better than you think.
Conversely (and sticking with the example), maybe it’s a sure bet that you and dad will be fighting. If this is the case, and you know the stress you’re fearing is rooted in truth and history—and it’s coming, then maybe the best thing for you to do would be to drastically lower your expectations for the visit. Basically, just expect the worst and try to get out clean.
Now, I know this sounds like a terrible way to approach a situation, and it certainly seems void of hope. But sometimes, and especially when we’re dealing with damaging family issues, the best offense is a solid defense. For you Blue, I want you to be OK. And I truly hope that one day, the issues with your family are resolved in a way that gives you some measure of freedom from that pain. But for now—during the holiday season where Folgers commercials and society as a whole give us an inflated sense of what should/could be—maybe a good option is to shoulder down and make it as painless as possible. Fixing what’s broken is probably better left for quieter days with less pressure to be perfect.
Find Escape Routes
Going into family fun time, there is an expectation that we’ll all be together, every moment of every day. Oh won’t it be lovely! A nice breakfast where we laugh and share old stories and passively revisit the hurts from yesteryear that continue to haunt our psyche and push us away from future healthy relationships! Or maybe we’re dreaming of a white Christmas where we’re all gathered around the piano, singing carols and waiting for your sister to show up who always makes everything about her. Hark the herald angels sing!
You can’t do it, Blue. You don’t have the stamina to deal with the continued text and subtext of family for days at a time. It’s too much. An hour or two, maybe. But a whole day, for a week? That’s a recipe for raised tempers and lowered quality of life.
Prepare and plan some hourly and daily times of rest from your family. Maybe this means connecting with some old high school friends and going out for a night. Maybe it means reading a fun teen-fiction book that takes you out of your living room and into a land far far away. Whatever it looks like for you, escaping in healthy ways is a good—and you’ll need it. Because just like we need Sabbath rest to focus on God, we need to give our psyche a rest and do whatever it takes to lower the heat and get back to family fun time around the piano. (Where in heck is my sister, anyhow?!)
Focus On What is Real
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t suggest doing anything you can to orient your heart and mind toward Jesus this Christmas (and always). I know the whole “Jesus is the reason for the season” thing is worn and cliche. But it actually is true. And for you and many others who are having a tough time understanding what love looks like in the context of our family, maybe we’d be a little less hurt, a little less disappointed, a little less wounded by our family if we truly internalized that a loving God came to earth and was “called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Even the best Folgers families can’t measure up to that kind of love. And that’s a love that’s available to you, to me and to a whole world who yearns to feel cared for.
Merry Christmas, Blue. And good luck with finals!
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