Despite our best intentions, sometimes holidays with the family can bring more pressure than pleasure, our joy dampened by obligation and complex dynamics. Rather than suffering through tense or complicated family holidays, professionals suggest you might choose to opt out of one or more events, celebrate with friends or your own nuclear family, or tailor your participation to minimize difficult feelings. Here are some methods for doing so with the least amount of fallout possible.
If you’re feeling dread rather than pleasant anticipation at any coming holiday, start with a self-check. “Be honest and observe yourself. Does the thought of going bring on negative feelings, even dread?” asks Sue Cook, a Canadian social worker and founder of Family TLC. “Give yourself permission to decide what to do. Consider all the options,” she says.
Before you opt out, however, Cook recommends you spend some time reflecting or writing about your part in any family tensions. Perhaps a conversation in advance can help you work through a problem, paving the way for a happy holiday.
However, once you’re clear that not going is the healthier option for you, Michele Hempel, an Illinois-based licensed clinical social worker, suggests you give yourself permission to take care of yourself. “I always say that no matter what else you have on your list, sanity has to be number one. Also, let yourself off the guilt hook for making this radical choice.”
Part of being accountable for opting out, however, is letting your family know in a way that minimizes resentments and allows everyone to express their feelings. Christine Valentin, a licensed clinical social worker who practices in New York and New Jersey, recommends you set expectations early with your family. “The point is to gear them up for the possibility that you may not attend so as to reduce the stress and disappointment that often result.”
“Only say what is true for you,” says Hempel. “Be kind. Be generous. Be respectful. Take responsibility for your choice; don’t blame the other for making you feel that way.”
All experts agree that it’s best to keep your actual words short and sweet. The authors of Irrelationship: How We Use Dysfunctional Relationships to Hide from Intimacy, Mark B. Borg, Jr., Grant H. Brenner and Daniel Berry suggest the following phrases:
- “I look forward to getting together when I’m in a better place.”
- “The holidays stir up a lot of feelings for me. I need room this year to get some clarity on how I feel.”
- “I love you and wish I could be with you this year, but I just need some time for myself.”
Mix it up
For many other people, “family” is not defined by blood relations, but by love and connection. Charyn Pfeuffer, a writer and editor in Seattle, spends Thanksgiving with friends. “Everyone brings their culinary A-game to the feast, there’s no drama, and we have fun,” she tells Rewire Me. “Familial guilt can be a powerful thing. I’ve made the mistake of giving into family holiday demands and it never ends well. I’d ask yourself, ‘do you really want to do it? If not, why?’ Then briefly explain why you’re opting out.”
You may not have to opt out of all holidays, but pick and choose the ones that feel the best to you.
Linda H. Davis, a biographer, began to opt out of Christmas because she was cooking and preparing more than enjoying herself. “We started a new tradition of my fixing a nice dinner for just the four of us on Christmas Eve. We have all found this a wonderful change.”
Dorri Olds, an award-winning writer and web designer, comes from a family that celebrated “every holiday” but she didn’t always enjoy them. “I find them a forced time to act happy,” she says. After years of attending out of obligation, particularly after the death of her father, she had an epiphany: “I realized I was approaching the issue as if I were swimming against a current. All I had to do was turn around and go with the flow.” Since choosing her own flow, she opts out of most major holidays, spending them with her husband and dog, and shows up for birthdays and Mother’s Day.
Twanna Hines, relationships writer and sex educator, suggests we redefine the nature of our holidays altogether. “In many countries, the word used for vacation is actually holiday, which has a connection to relaxation, fun, and participating in activities we choose on the spot. Be mindful about what you’re celebrating, how, and with whom. It’s extremely liberating and it gets us away from this idea that we have to follow a specific script with a set cast of characters that may not be a good match for the beliefs and values we hold today.”