For each of us, the holidays bring up a variety of emotions, associations and expectations. For the luckiest of us, we think of mostly the good stuff: the bright lights of decorations, get-togethers with friends and loved ones and traditions such as eggnog and kissing under mistletoe. For many of us, though, the holidays are significantly more complex. While family can be a point of difficulty no matter who you are or how you identify, for many LGBTQ people family gatherings, and thus the holidays, can be an incredibly stressful and anxiety-inducing time.
The most common, distressing familial experiences I find during the holidays are as follows: One, there’s a full cut-off from family and the holidays are a painful reminder of that, or two, family members are less than accepting and perhaps passive aggressive (or worse), but still expect attendance at family gatherings.
If you fall into the category of being completely estranged from your family, the best thing you can do for yourself in preparation for the holidays is to establish your plans for the season. While it may be tempting to try to just avoid the holidays altogether, at some point you will inevitably notice that they are happening. Make plans in advance to be with friends, chosen family and/or community. If you do choose to be alone, be certain that you’ve checked in with yourself about the decision and that you won’t ultimately regret it. By the way, if you feel like you’ve got nowhere to go, the William Way LGBT Community Center is open 365 days a year and always takes care of community members on holidays.
On the other hand, if you fall into the category of having a strained (but not estranged) relationship with family and plan on spending the holidays with them doing the traditional thing, I encourage you to show up prepared. I recommend trying the following, in no particular order:
1. Don’t fall prey to negativity. If you know snide remarks, passive-aggressive behaviors or any other negative interaction will come your way, decide in advance what your reaction will be. Even if you simply say to yourself that you will ignore any negativity, deciding this in advance helps to ensure that you stick with the plan.
2. Hang with the kids. Children bring joy and they don’t know hate. If you spend some time enjoying the simplicity that children bring and allow yourself to be present, their inherent positivity will help balance out any negativity the adults brought with them.
3. Watch your drinking. For many of us, it’s a natural inclination in stressful situations to consume more alcohol than we typically would: Resist this urge. As you know, the more we drink, the less capable we are of regulating our emotional reactions. You will be most in control and empowered if you maintain a level of sobriety.
4. Take a breather. If the situation is starting to overwhelm you, excuse yourself to the restroom or for a bit of fresh air for several minutes in order to re-center yourself and quite literally, take a breath. Focusing on slow, purposeful breaths for just a few minutes can help to deactivate your body’s natural reaction to stress.
5. Establish a goal and visualize that successful outcome. For example, the type of goal you might set for yourself is getting through the night without losing your temper. This is an effective goal because it falls within your control — you can decide only your own behavior and it’s important to remember that. Before you go in, visualize yourself making it through the day calmly and peacefully.
6. Don’t be afraid to leave when you’re maxed out. With family comes feelings of obligation. While it is OK to choose to honor familial obligations even if there’s a level of toxicity to them, you do not and should not abandon your own sense of boundaries. If you know you need to leave after several hours, do it.
While there is no airtight way of ensuring that we will make it through the holidays unscathed, if we acknowledge our own abilities to affect our interactions with family members, we are way more likely to feel OK at the end of it all. When we make decisions that align with our morals and values and that take into consideration our own self-worth, we truly do have the best shot at feeling at peace with ourselves and, of course, of making it through in one piece. Sending love to you all.
Kristina Furia is a psychotherapist committed to working with LGBT individuals and couples. She owns Emerge Wellness, an LGBT health and wellness center in Center City (www.emergewellnessphilly.com).