Twenty twenty-three is winding down and once again we are hurtling towards the holiday season. American Thanksgiving really seems to mark the beginning of it all and with that in the rearview mirror, it’s full steam ahead. Despite the seasonal cheer and goodwill, I’m not feeling the spirit this year. I’m not feeling down or particularly stressed out, I just don’t want to. Somehow it all sounds like a hassle, and not fun or joyful. The expectations at this time of year are so out of whack, nothing feels like enough, and so many of us are so far away from feeling real kinship or community in the winter holidays. I’m a thousand kilometres from my extended family, and while I’m not necessarily wishing I was going home for the holidays, it feels like a sad threshold of adulthood to “give up” on Christmas. Would I feel differently if I was with them? Perhaps. More likely, I’d feel anxious and exhausted from censoring myself and feigning excitement for all the razzle-dazzle.
Of all the traditions that have endured since my childhood, getting cozy and watching movies is one of my favourites. They’re silly and indulgent, tugging at heart strings with the very familiar trope of returning to your family of origin and feeling misunderstood or unaccepted. Add a dash of overbearing parents, a sprinkle of facing a long lost love for the first time in years, and just a pinch of impostor syndrome and you have the recipe for a relatable, if not predictable, story. The focus is always on knitting the past and the present together, healing old wounds, and tying it all up in a nice, neat bow – all while navigating social disasters and dodging familial expectations. Nostalgia colours everything, no one feels comfortable – despite being crushed to the bosom of their family – and no one behaves quite like themselves. As silly as they seem, holiday movies capture the complexity of these celebrations remarkably well, in my opinion. Anyone who has gone ‘home for the holidays’ knows how fraught the whole experience can be.
The Cost of Going Home For The Holidays
If you find yourself in these awkward family experiences every year, it can be hard to imagine how else this seasonal pantomime could play out. But what price do you pay for pretending? How much does it cost you emotionally, mentally, even financially if you have to travel, buy gifts, etc.? And is it worth it? For many people it is, and to them I say: I’m happy for you. But for many it’s a draining, demoralising chore that leaves them feeling guilty that they’re glad when it’s over.
Let’s not forget the pressure to be nice instead of honest and to “make the most of the holidays”. In no way am I suggesting that we be rude or uncaring when we find ourselves home for the holidays. In fact, being gracious without feeling like a doormat is the goal, but ‘playing nice’ can sometimes be one of the only useful strategies. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to do or comfortable. It may feel like you’ve ‘let them win’, but your peace is the priority, and you have the right to protect it. The celebrations at this time of year mean different things to different people and many of us are familiar with the feeling of being a hostage in someone else’s ideal holiday, or having to accommodate traditions and behaviours that you’d rather see left in the past. In many families, the consequences of choosing something different or breaking tradition, is worse than sitting through another dry turkey dinner and a festive family argument. And so the tradition continues. But at what point does “celebrating the holidays” become “surviving the holidays”?
Their House vs Your Boundaries
Setting boundaries and sticking to them can be very hard, especially in a family that is not used to you asserting yourself, and particularly if you’re ‘under their roof’. It’s not uncommon for family members to revert to old scripts and previous versions of a relationship when they get together and are surrounded by memories and traditions. Sometimes that’s fun and silly and feels good, other times it’s triggering or leaves you feeling unheard or disrespected. Emotions can run high this time of year, so preparing and thinking ahead of time about how you’ll express and maintain your boundaries can be helpful. If you’re with a spouse or have a sibling for an ally, talk about how you can support each other and if there are any deal breaker scenarios that you may need to navigate.
Your Boundaries Are About You
“Setting boundaries” is a major topic in behavioural therapy and is essential to self-regulation, but it’s often easier said than done. Many of us have tried to establish boundaries with family members and not had success, but that’s not reason enough to stop trying. Many people struggle with boundaries because it “feels mean” or “sounds like a threat”, but a boundary is an expectation you set for yourself. Alerting others to how their behaviour may prompt you to follow through on these self expectations is a courtesy. You’re not imposing anything on anyone when you set a boundary, you are simply saying ‘This is what I will allow and how I will respond in order to maintain this boundary for myself.’ It can be frustrating to have your boundaries stepped on, especially if it happens more than once. No one should have to “suck it up” or endure abusive treatment or bad faith arguments, but in the same way that you have a right to hold and express boundaries, others have the right not to accept them. Sticking to your boundaries and following through on consequences is essential, even though it can be challenging. People may not expect you to follow through and feel angry or embarrassed when you do. Just remember: your boundaries are for you, not them.
Since I’m not going home for the holidays this year, and my grip on the usual traditions has loosened, I hope to enjoy the mental space and take a break from the usual stress. What I won’t be doing is crossing my own boundaries: I won’t bully myself into doing more, I won’t guilt myself into indulging less. I will take this season a day at a time and do my best to be present and peaceful. This year, that’s all I’m asking of myself!