Every year, the team at Mazzoni Center’s Open Door Counseling program puts together what we call a “Holiday Survival Guide,” filled with tips and advice on navigating a season that can often bring challenges. Despite the joyful reputation, we all know that the holidays can also be a tough time for LGBTQ folks who may have strained relations with families of origin; for trans or gender-nonconforming folks coming to terms with family who may not be fully accepting or affirming of your identity; for people who are in recovery; for those who have been through a recent loss or break-up; or for anyone who braces themselves as this season approaches.
For many people, including members of the LGBTQ community, the holidays can also become a kind of anniversary. This may be your first time celebrating the holidays without a loved one. This may be the last time you think you will have a loved one around to celebrate with. It may mark the time of year that you experienced a loss or trauma of some kind in the past, and the specific date or time of year stirs up memories or feelings that stay at bay the rest of the year.
There are a host of reasons people tend to get down over the holidays, or find themselves in stressful situations. Depending on where you plan to spend your holidays, and with the results of the recent presidential election, suddenly tensions at the Thanksgiving table may be raised to a whole new level. The subsequent feelings of fear and uncertainty that have gripped so many people can make it a particularly difficult time to think about how to prepare for the holiday season.
As you look ahead to specific interactions, pay attention to what you are feeling and thinking. If you have a sense that conversations might come up that will leave you feeling hurt, sad or scared, consider preemptively setting communication boundaries around these events or relationships. Consider putting it in terms of everyone’s shared enjoyment of the occasion or grounding in a shared value.
You can do this using four basic principles of nonviolent communication: observations, feelings, needs and requests. “When the topic of the election comes up, I feel scared because of the things that were said on the campaign trail that felt targeted at the rights of certain groups of people. Can we agree not to talk about the election while we are together for Thanksgiving this year?”
Or, “Our family believes in treating everyone with respect and showing each other compassion, so I’d like to ask that we don’t talk about how everyone voted.”
There may be some who read this and feel that they don’t want to steer clear of these difficult topics and would rather seek out intentional conversations with friends and family whose views may differ dramatically from theirs. This is not easy — and is not always possible — but some folks feel obligated to at least attempt a productive dialogue, explaining to a friend or family member why the views they hold or appear to endorse are causing them, and people they care about, pain.
If you feel comfortable, you may want to engage relatives in a respectful conversation about why language matters and how hateful rhetoric that goes unchallenged can have very real, devastating consequences. In a year where the nation’s worst mass shooting took place _ and specifically targeted LGBTQ people and people of color — it should not be difficult for us to see a connection between hateful attitudes and hurtful actions. What may seem like “harmless” talk to some people can have devastating and dehumanizing consequences for the lives of others.
With all of this being said, there is no reason we should feel obligated to listen to language that feels damaging to our self-esteem or self-worth. We cannot control the responses people will give, but we can ask for our boundaries to be honored around certain topics or ideas. If you feel like you are asking for simple respect and are not getting it, then you can also let people know that you are excusing yourself from the table, the room or the event. It may not be easy, but sometimes this is the best way to ensure you aren’t being exposed to triggers or otherwise hurtful conversations.
If it is too difficult to be with your family, create your own holiday gathering with friends and loved ones. Remember that you don’t need your family’s (or anyone else’s) approval.
Ultimately, you may want to take time to be alone, stay connected to who you are and remain in contact with close friends and supportive loved ones. There are many ways to approach a situation where you feel uneasy, uncomfortable or even in conflict. There are also many ways to respond to what we need individually and personally in these moments and situations. Each individual and family situation is unique; consider what feels best and most healthy for you.
A few final thoughts: Show gratitude to the positive, affirming people in your life. Accept the love and support of those who offer it. Don’t expect to have all the answers now. And remember that you are not alone in this. Breathe deeply. Hold onto your good friends and loved ones. Offer kindness to others and to yourself.
For more information on Mazzoni Center, visit www.mazzonicenter.org. Amanda Moyer and Heather Doughty are students at Bryn Mawr College Graduate School of Social Work and interns in Mazzoni Center’s Open Door Counseling program.