This time of year, we are inundated with images of happy families greeting each other joyfully, sitting down to lavish holiday meals, and exchanging lovely and thoughtful gifts. For people who have families who are really like that, the holidays can truly be “the most wonderful time of the year.”
But we don’t all have families like that. As we head into the holiday season, a lot of us have a bad feeling in the pit of our stomachs. Maybe your family holidays include things you don’t see in the commercials and magazine ads – the uncle with loud and belligerent political opinions, the parent with substance abuse problems, the molester who is still welcomed to family gatherings despite people having been told about what they had done to other members of the family.
Or maybe it’s simply having to be away from the people who really support you in your life, who love you for you, to spend obligatory time with people who can’t be told about or refuse to acknowledge your orientation, your gender, your partner, or partners, your polyamory, your morals, your values, and your politics... your real self.
It’s not fun. It’s not joyful. It’s stressful and annoying, saddening and maddening. And yet many of us feel we have no choice, because it’s what you do. It’s what you have always done.
You do have a choice, though!
You do not have to spend the holidays with your family of origin.
Let me repeat that… you do NOT have to spend the holidays with your family of origin.
It may feel like a lovely but forbidden fantasy – to spend Thanksgiving, Christmas, Chanukah or Kwanzaa with your family of choice, with partners, with ALL your partners, and/or with dear friends who really do lift you up and who you love and support in return.
Or maybe your secret fantasy is to spend Black Friday on your own sofa catching up on Netflix shows instead of trailing around the stores with your mom and siblings hunting for bargains.
It doesn’t have to be just a fantasy! Despite all the “FAMILY” propaganda, there’s no law that says you are required to spend the holidays with relatives who drain and depress you. You CAN choose to do your own thing.
It might feel difficult. You may feel guilt, and have thoughts telling you that you are being selfish and that it’s no big deal to suck it up because it makes your parents happy. Outside voices can pile on the guilt as well – the people who say it’s all a happy gathering, and not having everyone there will spoil it. Some of the guilt may come from others who are equally unhappy with the ritual, but count on you all being miserable together to get through it.
We often feel trapped, not because we don’t have options from which to choose, but because we don’t like the options available or the perceived consequences of those choices. It can be empowering to acknowledge that you DO have options, you simply need a new way of responding to the perceived obstacles: feelings of guilt, and/or manipulative or guilt tripping responses from others and more.
For your own feelings of guilt, I recommend writing exercises, verbal reinforcement from yourself and if possible reassurance from others in your family of choice.
For writing exercises, you can pick a sentence that counteracts the feelings of guilt, such as “I deserve to be happy and enjoy my holidays” and hand write it 10 times each day. Or, print signs and post them in prominent places where you will see them multiple times each day. Or, verbally speak the sentence while looking in the mirror, or anytime you notice the feelings of guilt.
You can also ask your friends and family of choice to remind you of your right to choose how you spend your time, and your right to not expose yourself to trauma reminders or identity oppressing atmospheres. You can also ask them to reassure you of how pleased or grateful they feel that you will be together for the holidays, or how proud they feel that you are choosing to do what is best for you and not be controlled by guilt.
If you wish to avoid people who harmed or traumatized you in the past or who oppress you in the present, this could be a wonderful opportunity to explain the effect of this on you to people who may be allys. To explain to Mom that you would love to see her, but that listening to homophobic Uncle Larry, or mis-gendering stepdad, or to be separated from one of your partners, is damaging to you, could open her eyes about the family atmosphere in a way she hadn’t thought about before.
If the obstacle you face also includes manipulative or guilt tripping responses from others, know that they are being unfair and trying to make you responsible for their feelings. Don’t let them!
That is why, how you decide to handle this is completely up to you. You can be straightforward and say that you are ready to make your own separate traditions now. Or, you can be not-straight-forward and blame circumstances such as being unable to get a plane ticket or having to work over the weekend until you build up the strength to be more honest.
Or you can just say you aren’t coming. “No” is a complete sentence.
But in the end, the holidays are supposed to be about love and nurturing and feeling cozy and safe. If your usual holiday destination(s) don’t make you feel those things, or exact too high a price in negative feelings for the little bit of positive feelings, don’t put yourself through it.
It’s okay to take care of yourself. Don’t let people with outmoded or unrealistic ideals mess up your holiday. Whether you do it with dear friends and partners – your “family of choice” – or all by yourself, you can make a holiday that really is loving and nurturing, cozy and safe.