The leaves on the trees are vibrant shades of red and gold and there is a cool hint of winter in the air. It is a wonderful time of the year, but as I sigh and take in these wonderful sights, I feel suddenly unsettled. Why am I anxious? I wonder.
Then it hits me. Fall leads to winter and that means a sudden shift in weather and a dramatic change in family patterns. During the holiday season we spend a lot of time with family, including those we haven’t seen for months, or perhaps years. This can be challenging — especially if we have strained relationships with some of these people.
As I peer into the corridor of months ahead, I see holiday after holiday, gathering after gathering, and the faces of those with whom I have unfinished business. Lingering resentment, words I can remember that were hurtful. And I am supposed to forgive and forget and smile as if nothing is wrong? Arghh.
Let's face it, as we give thanks to God on Thanksgiving and celebrate our Savior's birth at Christmas, many of us struggle with feeling thankful and Christ-like when it comes to our families. There are a few reasons this merry time of year can be incredibly stressful for so many of us -- even those of us with normally tranquil families. During the holidays, expectations change suddenly. Families interact more frequently than usual. Tensions and losses are remembered and as quickly as the peacefulness of fall comes, the uneasy doldrums of winter announce their visitation. Thankfully, there are things that can be done, now, to help us navigate the holidays with less tension.
First, keep things in perspective. While the holiday tunes suggest perfect peace and harmony with all the family sitting on the hearth alongside Fido and Mittens, you may not be on the best terms with some of your family. This much closeness may awaken distasteful tensions.
Let it be okay to acknowledge your situation, exactly as it is, instead of believing that everyone else has a perfect family except you. We are inclined to believe that the Joneses next door all love one another immensely and have never had a cross word in their lives. Truth is, most families are pretty typical — they have their share of problems. The Hallmark cards of perfection are just that — picture perfect — not realistic. Keep that in mind as you make plans for the holidays.
Second, set healthy boundaries. If you have family tension, and even if you don’t, be careful not to overindulge in family over the holidays. Just like too much turkey can make you feel bloated, too much family can do the same thing. Sometimes a little goes a long way. Make conscious choices about who you want to be with, and who you don’t. Plan accordingly. You are grown up now and can make choices for yourself. You can decide how much time to spend with Aunt Marge and Uncle Ted. You can decide to travel less and spend more time with your immediate family.
Third, remember that these gatherings are opportunities to mend fences. Perhaps there will be a time to sit down with your sister and straighten out the grudge you’ve held for three years now (the one you now struggle to remember exactly why it started). Maybe you will get a chance to tell your mother, again, that you prefer not to be compared to your brother, or that you are visiting as often as possible given your obligations at home and really prefer not to be doused in guilt. This is a chance to spend a few extra minutes sharing in a more personal way.
Fourth, simplify and slow down. There is a strong tendency to add lots of things, and activities, to the holidays. As the music in the background picks up the tempo, folks walk faster, and even escalators even seem to pick up speed, remember there are no medals awarded to the individual or family that goes to the most Christmas parties, has the most family over, or who hands out the most elaborate gifts. Frenetic activity over the holidays only leads to exhaustion and sometimes adds to Winter blues. Often the most meaningful times are those spent with immediate family or with two or three close friends sitting quietly sharing dreams and renewing acquaintances.
Fifth, share the load. Ask for help. Let others give you a hand for a change. Many helping hands make for a lighter load. If you decide you really do want to have the family dinner at your house, give some thought ahead of time, to how others can help you so that you aren’t a one-man band. Again, this is no time to be a hero. Let it be known that things are changing for you — you need help.
Finally, keep your purpose clearly before you and establish your own traditions. What is meaningful to you? Do you even know what that is? Do you want to take in the Handel’s Messiah again, or is it time to have a simple meal with friends instead? Do you want to have your extended family over, or is it time to just relax and enjoy the festivities with your immediate family? What is your idea of the perfect Thanksgiving and Christmas? Are there special religious traditions that are important to you? Be true to yourself. Consider the meaning of this holiday season -- thankfulness for God's blessings and for God's love for us through His only Son. Celebrate, but celebrate in a way that brings joy, happiness, and meaning to this special time of year.
Dr. Hawkins is the director of The Marriage Recovery Center, where he helps couples in distress. He is the author of over 30 books, including When Pleasing Others Is Hurting You, Love Lost: Living Beyond a Broken Marriage, and Saying It So He'll Listen. His newest books are titled The Relationship Doctor's Prescription for Healing a Hurting Relationship and The Relationship Doctor's Prescription for Living Beyond Guilt. Dr. Hawkins grew up in the beautiful Pacific Northwest and lives with his wife on the South Puget Sound where he enjoys sailing, biking, and skiing. He has active practices in two Washington cities.
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