3 ways to emotionally survive visits with family during holidays

Story highlights

  • Spending time with family during the holidays can lead to stress and resentment
  • Alexcis Spencer Lopez, who operates a wellness center, says it doesn't have to
  • Manage your visits, says Spencer Lopez, by deciding where to stay and for how long
  • Don't get boxed in by your traditional family role and practice compassion, she says
"It always ends horribly," my client tells me as she recalls previous family holidays. "Twenty-plus years of therapy and self-improvement up in smoke in less than 20 minutes. Every year I promise myself that next year I won't go, but I always let myself get guilted into it again."
Many of us dread the holidays for similar reasons. At my wellness center, clients will often book double the sessions of body work, acupuncture, coaching and hypnotherapy around the holidays just to help them "survive" their family reunions.
It must be said that in some cases, the healthiest choice is not to spend time with family. However, there are ways to feel better with family, tricks to surviving the holidays with your emotional zen intact. I remind my clients to keep it simple: Small changes can led to big, positive shifts.
Here are three:
1. Manage your visit
Take control of your visit from the very beginning. Time with family has an expiration date, anything from an hour to a couple of days. Decide beforehand how long you will be staying and clearly communicate your plans to the family you will be visiting.
If you are traveling to be with family, repeat after me: it is worth the money to stay at a hotel or motel, and perhaps to even get your own car. Having your own space to retreat to and the independence to come and go as you like is priceless.
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A friend of mine enjoyed reconnecting with her family but found that she had nowhere to escape to when she stayed with her parents. They used their alone time to "gang up" on her about her life choices.
Last year, she let her parents know that she would be staying in a hotel and would be getting her own car. "It was great! It was the first time I have gone home and felt like an adult. It changed the whole feel and experience for me."
If you happen to be the one hosting your family, set clear boundaries around when they are welcome, how long they are welcome, what they need to bring, and how they can help out. Encourage out-of-town guests to get their own lodging unless you really enjoy sharing their company 24/7.
Whatever the arrangement, set clear expectations from the very beginning and no one will get hurt.
2. Break free of roles
Getting together with family can feel like picking up in the middle of a very old, very tired story in which everyone knows their parts but no one really likes playing them anymore. Decide to switch up the script. The easiest way to do this is to change your perspective: see and interact with the players as individuals instead of characters. In other words, rather than "Mom," "Dad," "black sheep" and "good kid," think of them as Sally, Bob, Jane and Dave.
So often, the problems in families stem from our not being acknowledged and respected for the individuals that we have become.
If we want to be seen as a person instead of some label we outgrew ages ago, then we need to lead by example and start extending that same courtesy to our family.
One of my clients returned from a holiday family visit last year exuberant. "Suddenly I was able to see my mom as a person who has lived a very lonely and fear-based life," she said. "I could see past her critical words to the person underneath and realized she doesn't know how to love herself, let alone someone else." Instead of getting angry, she found compassion for her mom, which was a big step toward healing their relationship.
3. Practice appreciation
It is all too easy to let ourselves get focused on all the things that aren't going right or the ways in which our relationships are not what we want them to be. This attention to the negative can only create more negativity and bad feelings. Remember -- whatever we look for we will find, and the more we look for it, the more of it we will discover.
Look at your family through the eyes of appreciation. What characteristics do they have that you admire? What might you miss about them if they were no longer living? What are you grateful for about your family?
This is by no means easy in the beginning, but there is at least one thing to appreciate about anyone or any situation. You can even take it a step further and share what you discover with your family members. There is nothing nicer than having someone tell you what they like about you.
Changing your focus to one of appreciation can have transformational results. One client made a game of finding things to appreciate about his mother-in-law. "It wasn't easy, but once I found a couple of things it became easier to focus on them instead of the other stuff. I think she has noticed something because our relationship doesn't seem so strained, and my wife thanked me the other day for being so kind to her parents."
The more you focus on what you are grateful for in your life and what you appreciate about your family, the more blessings you will find to count.
To recap: the goal is to feel better. And remember: the only person who needs to change for you to feel better is you. Thank goodness, because that's the only person over whom we have any control.