Guilt Trips: The Holiday Edition

The holidays are a great thing AND they can be rough as hell. If that is confusing to you, just skip this blog…and thank your lucky stars for your current life circumstances. For the rest of us, there can be a love/hate relationship with “the most wonderful time of the year.” There are multiple reasons for that (which we will go into in a later podcast), but one of the reasons is due to feeling pressured to make everyone happy. That pressure becomes multiplied if your family has several divorced members, you have kids (and may be divorced), your partner has family obligations, you live out of town, you have emotionally sensitive family members, or all of the above.


Here are some tips for managing the guilt you are likely to struggle with during the holiday season:


Communicate timelines early and with little room for negotiation.


Instead of letting emotions dictate when it’s time to leave, make a plan ahead of time and communicate it in advance. Decide on when you’re getting there and when you’re headed out. Remember that one of the benefits of being grown is that you are actually able to leave any damn time you please to do anything your little Grinchy heart desires. When you’re making that phone call about the price limit for the annual Dirty Santa gift exchange, briefly and succinctly lay out your plans: “Hey—so we’re planning on getting to town between 1pm-3pm on the 23rd, but since we’re bringing the dogs, we’ve gotta run by and drop them off at the Airbnb first. If you guys want to do dinner that night, just let us know whether you want to go out or stay in. We’ll be headed out to [persona non grata’s] house on Christmas Eve around 4pm and will be back to your house for Christmas morning breakfast at around 9am if that works ok with your plans for serving it. We’ll head back home early that next morning cause I’ve got to work on Friday.” Done.


Prepare ahead to accept and allow others to have their emotions.


Stop being so controlling of how other people feel. They have the right to feel ANY WAY THEY WANT TO and you or I can’t necessarily do anything about it. If they are hurt that you are leaving, they have the right. If they are frustrated that you are “only” participating in breakfast (but not dinner) by all means, give them the space to do so. If they are disappointed that you didn’t spend the night at their house, let them to express the pain. It is only when we tell ourselves that “they shouldn’t feel like that because…” that we get into trouble. We can get defensive, exasperated, and even change our plans based on their expression of feelings. How THEY FEEL and what YOU DO are actually independent entities. Don’t take it personally. How anyone feels depends on their thoughts and beliefs. Cognitive Behavioral therapists know that only irrational and maladaptive thoughts lead to unpleasant emotions and moods. So it behooves you to repeat one of my favorite interpersonal mantras: “Other people have the right to be wrong.” Carry on with your plans regardless of their expression of emotions.


Commit to disappointing everyone…just a bit and spread it evenly.


I actually came up with this approach when I was considering how to discuss Christmas plans with my family. It had been one hell of a rough year for me personally, so I was emotionally more sensitive and I was afraid I wouldn’t handle conflict as skillfully as I hoped. I was truly doing the best I could and knew I didn’t deserve what I felt would be criticism about how I chose to spend time over the holidays. It dawned on me that no matter what I did, at least one set of family members would be disappointed. That realization helped me to radically accept that there was absolutely NOTHING I could do to make everyone happy. It was oddly freeing. I saw that if I gave all of my time to one set of members, they would be SUPER pleased , but the other set would be absolutely irate . I laughed to myself as I realized that the solution was not to seek to please anyone, but in fact, it would work best if I thought of it like “pissing everyone off just a little.” That approach allowed me to do two things: It helped me normalize other people’s negative feelings rather than look at them as my problem to solve and it provided me with a little irreverent humor to get me by. Hey-even if there’s no way to get an A, you can still “pass” the test, right? No need to be a perfectionist about everything :)


Don’t read between the lines.


“We hate that you have to leave so soon,” “We never get to see you anymore,” “I thought because you went THERE last year you would be HERE this year.” As none of these verbalizations are questions, so you actually don’t need to go into any explanations. Don’t assume you know “what they really mean.” That’s too much work and can really confuse the facts. Most of the time, people who say things like this just do so as a way to express caring and love toward you rather than as a way to make you feel bad or to start some shit. Take it at face value and avoid unnecessary conflict. If they DO ask as question, the same rules apply. For example, “Do you HAVE to leave so soon?” can be answered simply,“Yes we do—love you!” or “We don’t ‘have to’ but it’s important to us to get back in time to unpack and wind down.”


Decide what you believe about yourself BEFORE you go.


It’s not the time to determine if you’ve “done enough” for them or “spent enough time” with them once they confront you with their opinion that you don’t and haven’t. Figure this out ahead of time. If you feel you come up short, first forgive yourself, then make a plan to repair that doesn’t involve trying to fit everything in to this one visit. Or just forgive yourself and let it go entirely. Challenge any bullshit thinking you have that suggests you are a “bad sister,” “terrible son,” or “selfish person.” Give yourself some kindness and assurance that you have been doing the best that you can. This approach also applies to semi-insulting or even outright abusive things that drunk uncles/aunts, siblings, and in-laws say. There are two approaches to this: Practice coping ahead of time or avoid it entirely. For the first, if you know or suspect they’re going to say it or imply it, practice dealing with the feelings that will come up ahead of time. See if you can figure out a way to hear the stuff, but not buy into it. You may try imagining hearing it while relaxing your body at the same time. Do this over and over until you aren’t as reactive. Alternatively, avoid the situation entirely. You can opt not to be around people you know who make efforts to emotionally harm you. You are not required to be subjected to abuse just because the person doing it is family or “doesn’t mean it.” For either situation, rehearse skillful responses that leave you feeling good about how you handled things regardless of how they acted. You are the only one who can protect you.


Protect your kids as much as possible.


If you’ve got kids, be aware that you are teaching them all the time. If they see you burned out, angry, and exasperated, they learn that the holidays are stressful. If they see you battling it out with your father, crying over the jab your mother threw about your divorce, or awkwardly sitting through dessert after your sister stormed off in a drunken rage, they learn that the holidays are just about going through the motions so you can get out of there. They can also conclude that adults are powerless and are subjected to the emotional whims of others. Alternatively, they conclude you are an ineffectual mouse, and when they grow up, they will NEVER put themselves or their future families through this crap; these kids end up rejecting family traditions entirely. When you have children, it is up to you to provide as positive of an emotional environment as possible. Don’t put them around volatile family members, don’t set your expectations so high that you stress yourself out, and don’t use them as a pawn in a chess game with your ex or in-laws. Use the time to help them learn that it’s ok to enjoy life, set boundaries, and be kind to yourself.


Finally, remember that it’s your holiday too!


It’s ok to make some decisions simply because you WANT it to be that way. Don’t let the entire holiday go by without doing something that is important to you. Create new traditions for yourself and with your kids, friends, partners, etc. Don’t spend the entire time running around trying to make everyone happy. You aren’t likely to succeed in that endeavor anyway!