'Tis the Season to (not) Feel Guilty

Holiday guilt can take many forms. People often feel a responsibility to give gifts, visit with people, or attend gatherings when we don’t really want to.

In an ideal world we like our “family” members and relish the thought of gathering during holidays to show the love we have felt for them all year. However, many people find the Holiday Season to be a minefield of guilt and responsibility, and a difficult time for protecting their mental health.

(I put “family” in quotes because, “What is family?” Is family the people who raised us? The people with whom we share DNA? Or the people who love and support us in our daily lives? For many, these groups do not overlap. So whom will we choose to call “family?”)

I have suggested before that if spending time with our family-of-origin is damaging for our mental health, then it is helpful to acknowledge that we have choices (See my blog post from Nov 12, 2017.)

But actually choosing to act differently can be difficult. In last year’s article I offered some suggestions for overcoming guilt and for responding to guilt-trips presented by others.

This year, I’d like to add some thoughts:

It’s okay if changing your behavior during the holidays is a multi-year project. If the thought of rocking the boat this year fills you with anxiety or dread, use this year to think about what you might want to change in the future, and to simply observe what your current way of doing the holidays is like for you.

Let yourself brainstorm! “If no one would have any unhappy feelings about it, what would YOU want to do with your holiday time? What experiences would YOU like to have?” Write out everything. Nothing is too absurd!

Then, go through your holidays as usual and observe your real experience. Are you missing your partner or one of your partners because they are not present? Are you gritting your teeth and tolerating poor or offensive treatment because you mother refuses to tell your bigoted uncle that he (or some of his behavior) is not welcome? Are you stressed about money because you feel obligated to give gifts to every single niece, nephew, grandchild and cousin? Are you feeling resentful because you get one vacation each year and maybe you’d rather spend it in a tropical paradise rather than driving 26 hours NORTH for a week with relatives?

In polyamory relationship counseling, I often suggest to people that they focus more on what they DO want and less on what they think they DON’T want. Focusing on what you DO want is helpful with family-of-origin, too. Often people don’t change their holiday patterns because what they REALLY want is a better, more loving relationship with Mom, or Dad, or whoever.

They fear that choosing to not attend “family” gatherings will upset Mom or Dad or whoever and the relationship will be damaged and become LESS loving. That seems to move things in the wrong direction related to your goals, right?

Allow yourself to imagine what this more loving relationship would look like. Would this person accept you as you are? Would they accept your same sex partner? You gender identity? You partner’s gender identity? Your pagan beliefs? You absence of religious belief? You political views? Both or all of your partners? Would they feel compersion for you if you skipped a year with them so you could have a once in a lifetime vacation to Greece?

So, as you go through this Holiday Season observing what your REAL experiences are during these holiday gatherings, ask yourself, “What are the moments I feel the distance? What are the moments I recognize that my relationship with this person is not the close, loving relationship I want it to be?”

You may recognize those moments as moments of pain, when they open the door and have a negative response to your purple hair or your black nail polish (or any nail polish!) You may feel it as anger when someone says something offensive and you feel obligated to hold your tongue rather than respond. You may feel it as a numbing when someone who abused you in childhood is welcomed into the home and you are expected to act as though nothing happened. You may feel it as loneliness because someone you love isn’t there.

Write these experiences down. Journal about them. During the next year, you can work toward using these experiences to slowly build toward the experience you would like to have next year.

Let’s say you want to have a more loving relationship with someone. What often feels missing is to feel that love and generosity coming from them and flowing to you. Is it because they don't feel it? Or, is it because they don't know what would truly make you happy? How can they know if you are not honest with them?

You might consider simply telling them what you feel, what it is like for you, to not be with your partner on that holiday, or to be around that one terrible relative, or what it would mean to you to go on that trip.

This can set the stage for you to tell them that next year you plan to do something different.

If you predict they are the kind of people who will lay on the guilt trips, prepare for that in advance like you are preparing for a job interview. Imagine all the things they might say and plan how you would like to respond. Ask your friends and partners to role play with you or to help you come up with constructive responses.

And take your time! You have all or 2019 to ease them into expecting new behaviors from you.