The holidays can be a stressful time for anyone, no matter which of the many significant events you’re celebrating this year. For those of us who celebrate Christmas, the reminders are everywhere: Signs at the department store reminding you to shop early, Pinterest boards dedicated to cookie recipes, and the pressure to socialize with people you barely speak to for the other 11 months of the year.
The epitome of the latter scenario is the family dinner. For those of you who genuinely enjoy your family’s company, this may be an enjoyable event, and you may even look forward to it. However, many people have strained relationships with relatives and may look to this event with mixed feelings of anxiety and dread. There can be several reasons for this. Maybe your racist grandmother can’t drink a glass of wine without complaining about “thugs” in her neighborhood. Perhaps your conservative uncle Larry thinks every family gathering is the perfect setting for the annual holiday political debate. Whatever your reason is, it’s important to remember that your feelings are valid, and it’s possible to make it through the dinner, even while entertaining thoughts of homicide.
First, identify what it is that makes these events a source of discomfort for you. Write it out in a list, if that helps. Is it your nationalist cousin? Or is it the idea of being expected to eat turkey, even though you’re a vegetarian and your family knows it? Whatever it is, write it down, and then brainstorm ideas of how to prevent or avoid those aspects. For example, you could ask to not be seated next to your cousin, or you can tell your Grandma ahead of time that you don’t eat meat. Try to list a few alternatives, just in case you need a Plan B. If you know that your request to not sit next to certain relatives will be ignored, think of small talk topics that are neutral and have nothing to do with politics. Or, if your Grandma’s going to be insulted that you won’t eat the bird, eat ahead of time, and try to enjoy the company of your relatives.
You’ve made your list, and you have your alternatives. They may look good on paper, but putting them into practice can be tricky. In the event that your alternatives fail, it’s important to have an escape plan. If you have your own car, it may be a good idea drive yourself to the dinner so that you’tr not dependent on others to leave if you feel the need to do so. If you don’t drive, make arrangements with a friend to be on standby, should they need to rescue you. If you don’t drive and no friends are available, then keep some cash on hand and your phone charged, in case you need to take a taxi or an Uber.
Now, there is the possibility that you may not be able to leave. What can you do then? Make sure to have some relaxation techniques handy. Breathing exercises can help ward off panic attacks and buy you some time to remove yourself from the situation. It’s also a good idea to have the number for a crisis line on hand, just in case you need to talk to someone. Plan for self-care after the event.
There is one more option, and you may think it’s extreme, but hear me out: Just don’t go. Yes, I know it’s the holidays, and you’re expected to be there. But it’s important to remember that your number one priority is yourself and your mental well-being. If you know that no amount of breathing exercises or lists will help you get through this event, then it’s not unreasonable to simply be absent for it. Yes, your family may be upset by this, but in the words of my conservative father, they’ll just have to get over it.
What to do if you decide not to attend? Plan a potluck with friends! Host an ugly sweater party. Download a pile of Christmas movies and huddle up with a blanket and hot chocolate. Indulge in some seasonally scented bath bombs and grab a good book (I’m currently reading Life by Keith Richards) to soak with in the tub. It’s the season of giving, and that means treating yourself, too!
Good luck, and happy holidays! If you have more suggestions for how to survive this month, leave a comment below. Let’s support each other this holiday season!
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