Finals are coming to a close, you’re setting your out-of-office notification, and Christmas Eve is rapidly approaching — which means traveling home to family is imminent for many. The anticipation of joining a herd of family members can range from stressful, to anxiety-inducing, to straight up traumatic. So, why do it?
I finally learned that I didn’t have to. Becoming a child of divorce in my early twenties led to some seriously awkward family Christmases, and has continued to lead to anxiety when divvying time with my parents. They’re both extremely accommodating, and it is still a huge stress in my life.
“Holidays can have such a significance for families; everything tends to get heightened,” says Nancy Brittain, a Denver-based LCSW. Feelings, emotions, destructive behaviors, dysfunctional dynamics — a holiday gathering can bring it all out of the woodwork.
Fortunately, I have parents who support my independence and understand that holidays aren’t the most enjoyable time for me to hang around family. Many others have families who are less understanding or accommodating, or overtly abusive. In talking with friends, therapists, and friends who are therapists (everyone should have at least one of those), it became clear that the decision of whether to go home for the holidays is one struggled with by many — and it becomes harder as we get older.
Know that it’s your choice where you spend the holidays. (If you don’t believe that, ask yourself why you feel that way.)
Your emotional health comes first. If time with family compromises some aspect of this, reevaluate your holiday plans. “Sometimes taking care of yourself means having boundaries around when you can go home and the context in which you can see your family,” Brittain says.
If you’re on the fence, think through the experience of being home.
Going through the thought exercise of being home and interacting with family can be a valuable decision-making tool, says Benjamin White, an LCSW/CGP in Lafayette, Colorado. “I encourage people to think about their behaviors when they’re with family, and what effect that has on them in the following weeks and months,” White says. Do you drink more than usual? Do you have trouble sleeping? Sometimes the experience is a tolerable frustration, while other times the repercussions are physical and damaging.
Suggest an alternative time or place to convene with your family.
Marriage, partnership, loss of a family member, divorce — all these are among pivotal life experiences that complicate the decision of how and where to spend holidays. Whether you want to join your partner’s family, or you just need space from your own, consider suggesting an alternate time that’s less charged emotionally. “Much of the significance of the day is time spent together,” Brittain says. “Try communicating that you’ll be pulled in fewer directions if it’s at a different time.”
Remember that conflict is a sign of a healthy relationship.
Doubtful your family can handle news of your absence? Try it. “People are so terrified to say or do anything that might hurt their parents,” White says. He explains that healthy relationships involve safe connections where you can say and do things that might not please other people. “Shifting into an adult relationship involves testing that,” he says. “People are worried that their parents will be so offended that they’ll be cold — but if that’s the case, is that a relationship that you want?”
Acknowledge disappointment, and excuse yourself from guilt.
Susie Hair, an LCSW-S/CEDS in Dallas, Texas, explains that guilt is something we experience when we intentionally inflict pain or harm on another person. Unless you’re intentionally trying to hurt your family by not coming home (which is a topic for another article), recognize that it’s natural for family members to respond with disappointment. “It’s okay for people to be disappointed,” she says. “It’s a normal feeling.”
Only give a simple explanation.
If an honest conversation about your sister’s addiction will crush your family, it’s probably not the right time to get to the root of why you’re opting out of a holiday gathering. Hair offers a catch-all explanation: “If it’s too stressful to talk about why you don’t want to come home, express a desire to start your own holiday traditions in the same way your family did when you were young.”
Be firm in your decision.
Set boundaries and expectations by being clear about your intentions not to come home this year. “If you give any sort of possibility that you may come home, your family will go in for the kill,” Hair says. “It needs to be a firm decision, otherwise it will lead to a series of painful conversations and you’ll have to go through it all again next year.”
It took years for me to work up the courage to speak up for myself and say — firmly — I was better off scheduling non-holiday times to come home. But speaking up has made a huge difference in how I experience the holidays and how I relate to my family (and yes, it took some therapy hours to get there).
Be empowered and know that how you spend your holidays is a choice. It’s not too late to miss your flight, or adjust your holiday itinerary. If your family relationships are healthy, your loved ones will understand. If they’re not, it might be a sign to stay home and dig deeper — the time and money you save on travel could be well invested in some QT with your therapist.