Christmas can bring out stress in even the most peaceful people. There are gifts to buy and overcrowded shops. An elaborate meal must be cooked for family and friends. The house is to be made to look festive. The list goes on and on. Add a toxic family dynamic to the mix and the stress can be overwhelming. So let’s talk about some ideas for how to survive the holidays without losing your mind.
In this module, we discuss how you can prepare for the craziness of Christmas. I have picked Christmas because it is such a big deal in many parts of the world. Yet, what we discuss here can also be applied to other holidays or personal milestones. So, if that’s what you are dealing with, just keep reading, you will still get lots out of this module!
In this module we will cover the following:
- Anticipation Of A Date
- Keeping Your Emotional Balance
- Dealing With The Holiday Post No-Contact
- Dealing With Toxic Family Members
- Stress Reducing Exercises – by Guest Lecturer Michael Ballard
Additionally, members of The Healing Academy have access to:
- Aubrey’s Tips For Dealing With Parental Visitation
- Journaling Through Christmas With Carrie and Mags (downloadable ebook)
- The Midwinter Mindset Webinar (for Healing Academy Plus Members)
Anticipation Of A Date
I clearly remember that feeling of anticipation and dread whenever I’d have to attend a family affair; the worry that my life was about to be criticized, belittled, and joked about. I didn’t want to sit at a table or in a circle around the living room with my family. The pressure to appear to be a nice, happy family was huge—and it usually ended in a fight over something insignificant. Depending on the size of the affair, I would be nervous about it for a long time in the lead-up. Imagining all the ways in which my family would be able to shame and blame me, ate away at me until the day arrived.
There is such pressure to be that perfect loving family, and so the efforts are doubled to project that image to the world. There is extra strain on us to let the outside see that perfect family around Christmas time, but as survivors, I am sure we also all remember that feeling of putting in plenty of emotional overtime to try and make our abuser happy. If we just get him that perfect gift or cook her that stunning 6-course meal. If only we can make the tree perfect, or the table setting the most sparkly in the world. Maybe that will turn them from a Grinch into a Christmas morning Scrooge.
Maybe, like every family in every Christmas movie ever made, this will be the year where they will see the error of their ways.
But probably not.
The holidays bring up emotions for many people, but especially so for us survivors. It can be a good idea to prepare yourself a little for the emotional time that is bound to lie ahead.
Plan For Your Success
I know I used to spend weeks trying to plan the perfect feast that would take me days to prepare. All in an attempt to buy approval from my parents and siblings, and to compensate for how awful our family situation was. What I realize, now, is that I may have approached this from the wrong angle. Making plans is fine, good even because you focus your attention on keeping yourself safe. We will speak about some ways to do that below. Planning is actually a very good idea, but the secret is in what you are actually planning for.
For years I was thinking about all the bad things that could happen when my family would get together. The hurt they would inflict on me. Fear, however, is not a very good foundation for life. So how should you plan for a confrontation with toxic people (this does not only apply to the holidays, by the way)?
Stop being afraid of what could go wrong and think of what could go right.
Instead of focusing our attention on all the different ways that the toxic person can hurt us, we need to think about the ways we can successfully protect ourselves! I know that may sound like the same thing, but it really isn’t. The latter plays to your strength and implies that you believe you have it in you to be strong—and to be successful at protecting yourself from their toxicity. It is just that belief that will give you the boost in confidence to make this a self-fulfilling prophecy.
So when emotionally preparing yourself for the holidays, remember to plan for success!
Christmas is not a time nor a season, but a state of mind.
To cherish peace and goodwill, to be plenteous in mercy, is to have the real spirit of Christmas.
– Calvin Coolidge
Keeping Your Emotional Balance
While dealing with Christmas in the aftermath of abuse, there is usually more than just a meteorological chill in the air. Every year, random events seem to trigger paranoia. For me, it’s usually: Are they trying to get me back for Christmas? Then, of course, there is the onslaught of happy families on television to content with. That takes its toll; there is so much emphasis on romance, family, and togetherness that it’s pretty much impossible not to feel like the odd one out.
Let’s dig into these feelings a little, and find out how you can deal with them.
So You Are Sad? What’s The Problem With That?
I can pretty much guarantee that, at some point in December, I will be crying my eyes out. I used to be afraid of that moment. Now I am okay with it. This is a time of year when I can feel totally overwhelmed by a feeling of utter loneliness. Not the kind from not having loving people around (my Family of Choice is the best). I’m talking about the kind that makes me realize that, biologically, I am a family of one. I feel orphaned. I cry because I remember how disliked and unloved I felt.
Outsiders don’t understand because they think I made that choice. I did, but it is the same choice as getting out of the path of a speeding car. It is an action to save your own life, and it really has little to do with the wish to be without a family.
There is such an enormous focus on family and reconciliation at this time of year. So, of course, I am going to be triggered at some point. I used to think that preparing for that trigger was tensing up so I could catch the fall. But just like with ice skating, the tenser you are, the more likely you’ll fall.
So these days, I try to relax when a significant date or a holiday pops up. I make sure I surround myself with the people that love me and understand. I try to avoid other triggers as much as is within my control, and I leave myself space and time for some extra self-care. You get the drift. I try to make my life as comfortable as possible. As I relax, the flow of emotions comes in less extreme peaks. It all has to do with giving yourself permission to feel whatever you are feeling. Maybe you feel sad despite being with your beloved Family of Choice. Maybe you feel happy even though you are not celebrating with your family of origins. Neither makes you a bad person.
What you feel is what you feel. And that is okay.
No Comparisons, Instead Look For The Good That Is
You realize what the trick is, right, not to get swept away in the emotion of it all? Stop comparing! Not only stop comparing yourself to the rest of the world but also stop comparing your present life to the life you had—or wished you had. The only life you have is the life you are living, right? So stop comparing it to all the other lives you might have had. Leave it to the parallel-universe-you to have that great family life, that magic marriage, or that winning lottery ticket.
You may not have grasped every dream and wish in your heart, but there are good things in your life, I guarantee it. There are great people that love and support you. There are hobbies you love, museums you can’t wait to see, and parks you are itching to take a walk through. There is music that moves you to your core, there are dishes that you cannot wait to stick your fork in. And believe me that however bleak you think your life is, there are always happy memories that can’t wait to be made.
When it comes to sad feelings, those days you keep longing for your dreams and wishes, you pull those good things around you. Like a blanket keeping out the cold.
Make this resolution: from now until forever, you will pull your warm blanket of goodness tight around you. Promise yourself to focus on all that is positive in your life. It may not take away the hurt, or stop life from being complicated, but it will keep you warm on cold days, at least…
Practical Strategies To Navigate The Holiday
Okay, we have talked about the way the holidays may make us feel, and how we can cope while all that feeling is happening. Now, let’s look at some practical strategies to actually make it through the day.
Boundaries And Preparedness
I speak about preparedness quite a bit. It’s not that I want to suggest you should be on high alert all the time, but there are certain ways in which you can prepare yourself and make it easier to set up and maintain your boundaries. Your boundaries protect you from emotional attack and will keep yourself safe and sane.
Boundaries are great and important. Still, you don’t want to freeze in fear of possible infractions. When I first cut contact with my family I did a lot of strategizing. In part this was because I was still in touch with my sisters, in part it was just my mind still operating in survival mode. There is a fine balance between being prepared for legitimate threats, and just being anxious and obsessive. But how do you learn the difference, and how can you use planning and strategizing to calm the anxiety?Learn More About Boundaries In this Healing Academy Resource, I Discuss Preparedness & Anxiety
Make Plans That Suit You
Perhaps, more importantly than any of the suggestions I’ll discuss, make sure your plans suit your own wants and needs. Try not to give in to the pressures of society, television, and especially Christmas movies. The holidays are about spending time with the people who are dearest to us; who nurture our souls. They can be your neighbors, your friends, the people in our community, or in fact with yourself. It is your choice who you will spend this time with, and it’s also your choice who decide not to spend time with. On top of that, it’s your choice how you spend that time. Pick activities you like, or things you have always wanted to try… you are in the driver’s seat.
Stay In The Moment
Spending a lot of time dwelling on memories of the past, or worrying about the future takes up valuable energy and enjoyment of today. When you are living in the past or the future too much, you may start to feel depressed or anxious. Should that happen, take a moment to come back to the moment. Take a few deep breaths and concentrate on your senses. What do you see, smell, hear…what physical sensation are you noticing? Are you warm, cold, tense, tired, hungry?
This will return your mind to the here and now. It has the added advantage that you may pick up on signals (like hunger, thirst or tiredness) that could be contributing to your worries.
To Be Or Not To Be Overwhelmed
Everybody gets overwhelmed this time of year, pinky promise. I think the real question you should be asking yourself is: “so you are overwhelmed, so what?” How does feeling overwhelmed, in any way, diminish your value? Give yourself permission and time to deal with the feelings that are coming up. It is important to acknowledge what is going on without dwelling on the pain. So, make time to take care of yourself. Make time for journaling, for example, so you can process your memories and feelings without getting stuck in thought loops over them.
At the same time, you may not feel overwhelmed with emotions. That’s fine too! Perhaps you expected the memories to come flooding, and they aren’t. That is nothing to feel bad about. Sometimes the flood doesn’t come until after the actual stressful event is behind you. And sometimes… they don’t come at all.
Just stay present and go with the flow of your body and mind.
Keep An Eye On Yourself
In order to find the flow, especially if you are not used to being tuned in just yet, try taking notes of when you feel overwhelmed, sad, happy, etc. Also note down what you’re doing, what you’re eating and drinking… just keywords will do. Can you discover a pattern? Are certain people, situations, foods or locations triggering?
Becoming more aware of your triggers can step back before overwhelm becomes panic or anxiety. It can also help you develop more effective self-care strategies. Making sure you stay well nourished and hydrated is likely going to help you manage your emotional responses much better.
Make Time For (Emotional) Self-Care
‘T is the season to be jolly…and sad, angry, disappointed, heartbroken, confused, grief stuck… you know, the whole spectrum of emotional being. Make sure you have space to deal with the emotions that come up. Get enough rest, make sure you are well nourished, hydrated, relaxed… you name it. Create room in your schedule to look after you.More On The Importance Of Self-Care
Make Time For Journaling
Journaling is a great way to process and record your emotions and thoughts. Making some time to write about what is going on, will help you feel more in control of your inner-dialogue.
To help get you started we have created a 10 day journaling booklet for members of the Healing Academy.Join The Healing Academy or Sign-In To Download the Ebook
Create Moments To Meditate Or Relax Your Mind
Make sure you plan some quiet moments for yourself. Whether it is real meditation, a quiet walk with the dog before the rest of the world wakes up, or a quiet cuppa in the kitchen. Taking small breaks from the holiday madness can help you recharge your battery and will help to deal with all the little things that may otherwise pile up and cause you to reach boiling point.
Don’t Expect The Unexpected
Yes, it can be helpful to prepare, but overdoing it is counterproductive. There is no way you can think of every single thing that can possibly go wrong, be said, or implied. It is better to come up with a few general strategies to help you play to your strength, create some space and give you excuses to get away. We share a few below that you can just tweak according to the exact circumstances you find yourself in.
Worrying too much may be an indication of self-doubt. You may feel you need a detailed battle plan because you are not sure you can handle yourself. Well, that’s what you have the general strategies for. In order to help you stay positive and confident, try to design a few affirmations. Tell yourself you’ve got this, you can do this, you have a 100% survival rate so far. It may sound silly, but saying these things out loud can really help you boost your confidence.
Don’t Try To Control Things
Not everything that influences us, is under your control. As much as that can be frustrating, there is nothing for it but to accept that. The question then becomes: where is your circle of influence and how can you use it to direct the holidays to suit you?
We have already mentioned a few things that you are in control of, like who you spend time with, activities you decide to engage in, how you care for yourself in order to feel most resilient, for example. In the section about dealing with toxic family members, below, we will look at a few other ways in which you can influence your circumstances.
Even with the best of preparation, life can still throw you a curve ball or two. So, another part of your preparation is to think of a few ways you can deal with the unexpected.
Embrace The Imperfection
However hard you try, however much you prepare and try to control your circumstances, your life is not a Holiday Special. It just isn’t. Under the best of circumstances, your holidays are not going to be perfect. Imperfect is still pretty good though! Don’t let unexpected events throw you off. Don’t let unexpected feelings or memories spoil good times.
Just because things are not the way you’d dreamed, or wished, or imagined, doesn’t mean they are not enjoyable, and memorable.
We have established that the holidays are not going to be perfect, stuff is going to go wrong, there are going to be emotions, curveballs and possibly toxic family members. Still, it is important to stay positive. Not the “override any emotions with a frantic smile” type positivity, obviously! Truly believe you are going to have good holidays, whatever life throws at you! Then, focus on the people and activities that bring you joy.Learn More About Mindset and Positive Thinking
Don’t Keep It All Bottled Up
Don’t go it alone. There will be plenty of people who understand the stress you are dealing with. If not the people around you, then certainly your fellow survivors. You can meet them inthe SwanWaters Facebook Group .
Dealing With The Holiday Post No-Contact
If you have left the abuse, and possibly have cut contact, you may worry about the holidays. What are you going to do, now that you have chucked your traditions out of the window? The answer to that question is of course: whatever you want!
SwanWaters team member Aubrey Cole once put it like this:
“It took me a couple of years to redefine what I expected of myself and with the help of my therapist and some great friends, I developed some fool-proof ways to let myself enjoy the holidays without guilt or expectations. Each year is a little bit different but that’s the beauty! I no longer have cookie-cutter ideas of what the holidays “should” look like. Making some changes helps you shed the expectations of ritual and conformity that can stifle your happiness.”
Here are some suggestions from the whole team to help you cope with these particular stresses.
Make Your Own Traditions
Every single one of us has embraced this important point: we have started creating our own Christmas traditions. My husband and I now celebrate with our dear friends, we have a lazy brunch, and start planning a lovely meal, months in advance (the planning is half the fun!). One thing Aubrey incorporated a couple of years ago was an annual visit to the National Gingerbread House Competition. This is held near where she lived and she had loads of fun. She and her girls spend a day seeing the houses, drinking cocoa by the huge fireplace in the hotel, and meandering through the shops.
The key to creating new traditions is to let go the notion that there is only one way a holiday should look.
– Aubrey Cole
So, what will be your new holiday tradition? Want to be in your neighborhood’s Tacky Lights competition? Have fun! Want to go see something you haven’t seen before? Make it happen! Want to try a winter sport, Christmas Karaoke, some fancy new recipes, or making your own ornaments? Do it!
Another great suggestion Aubrey adds: if you have children, ask them for ideas of things they think would be fun to do, then let them take the lead. Even if their idea is to make dyed macaroni necklaces for Santa’s reindeer or make a chocolate covered oat snack and call it “reindeer poop,” you will likely have the time of your life. You will feel like a kid again, no longer constrained by adult expectations, and it will likely make some of the best memories you will ever have.
And creating a new tradition doesn’t just have to be about picking new activities. You can also try a whole new way of decorating the house or decide not to decorate at all. You could try some new dishes, or have a Christmas around the globe approach to the menu. Maybe you can find fulfillment in doing volunteer work during the holidays, instead of (over-)indulging in your own home? The options are truly endless.
Spend Time With Your Family Of Choice
Make time for your family of choice, or ask them to spend time with you. Often we feel guilty for taking up time in our friends’ busy holiday schedule, but it is totally fine to let them know you need some TLC from your nearest and dearest to help you through The Season.
If there is no time on the actual dates, then make an appointment on the days between Christmas and New Year’s for example. Do something relaxing and fun. Shoot the breeze, have some lunch, watch a rom-com together… whatever! Just lean into the connection, and feel loved and supported.
Do The Things You Were Never “Allowed” To Do
I have never used this one for Christmas, but I have on other occasions, and it always makes me feel joyfully naughty. Do something you weren’t allowed when under the influence of your abuser. Sleep until noon, have a second serving or create a whole Christmas dinner only out of deserts.
Ask Yourself The Grinch Question
This one comes from Aubrey again, and I think she makes a great point. If you took away the tree, the boxes, the bows, the dinner, the decorations, and the rituals, would Christmas still come? Yes. Yes, it would. Now define what you find joyful about the holidays, no matter which one(s) you celebrate, and laser focus on those parts. But a word of caution in this regard…don’t just laser focus on what you feel makes you happy if it isn’t enjoyed by all. In other words, if you like building that gingerbread house but your kids really couldn’t care less, then don’t force it. Let them decorate and eat cookies while you construct your masterpiece! If you love going to a Christmas choir but everybody else hates it, get a sitter and go alone if you can.
Dealing With Toxic Family Members
If you are going home to an unsupportive family this holiday season, remember:
Your worth is not defined by what they say or how they treat you!
If you feel that some time spent in the company of toxic family members is unavoidable, then try and implement some strategies to minimize their influence and effect. Here are a few suggestions from the team and I:
At the prospect of spending the holidays with toxic family, we often worry for days if not weeks about the family gathering. Instead of worrying, start preparing. When you worry about certain possibilities, start visualizing strategies to cope. Preparing yourself gives you the upper-hand, and will give you more confidence to fend off the toxicity.
The Gift of Giving
Getting a gift for a toxic person is a near impossible challenge. They usually find some way to criticize and make you feel bad for your efforts. So maybe just give up before you even get started. Get a gift certificate or voucher for them so they can buy themselves whatever they like. I know it’s not very original, but it’s also very hard to really complain about. Or if you want to be original, and figure there will be complaints regardless, why not adopt them a tiger or get a family in Africa a goat? You may still have to listen to the nagging, but at least you’ll have done some good for the world. 🙂
Volunteer for the Right Jobs
If you are attending a large family gathering, there is usually some jobs that keep you away from the toxic person. So volunteer for those. Maybe looking after the kids keeps you out of the kitchen where your toxic mother is cooking. Or maybe cooking keeps you away from the living room where a toxic father is watching TV. Do the dogs need an extra special long walk in the forest? That could keep you out of harm’s way for a while.
Limit Your Exposure
Think about a way to limit your time at the celebration. This can be tricky, especially if you have to travel to get to the party. You may want to choose to ‘forget’ to bring an overnight bag, so you have a deadline for leaving. When you live nearby, you may want to only bring two nappies for the baby (provided you bring one of those). This too will give you a natural deadline. If there is no excuse for an early departure, why not opt for a late arrival? Volunteer in a local soup kitchen or help out with some activities at a care home. The toxic person will be hard pushed to fault you for that (at least in public).
There can be expectations of ‘having to be there’, but realize that you do not need to meet other people’s expectations.
If you are attending the celebration with a partner or friend, make sure you talk to them beforehand. Make them aware of your hesitations and involve them in strategizing. How can your partner help you to make the best of the evening? Can they act as a shield and deflect some of the toxic attention? This can make a tremendous difference.
Take Control over What You Control
We talked about control before, but specific to this context is the fact that the one thing we have no control over at the Christmas celebration is the behavior of the toxic person and their flying monkeys. So try to prepare well for the things you do control. If there is likely going to be some time to kill, bring a magazine. If you are taking the kids, make sure you pack enough entertainment… of course, you can’t control everything, but try to minimize the predictable stress for the day.
Stress Reducing Exercises – by Guest Lecturer Michael Ballard
For many of us, it not always easy to spend time with relatives. All that shared stuff, due in part to the behavior of a few. There are many reasons in these backgrounds we share. Some based on generations after generations of behavior and sometimes due to the behavior of just one individual.
Regardless of the reason or the season, a gathering of our relatives can be stressful. The travel, the judgment, the attitudes, and the history shared can be exhausting. So what’s a person to do? Well here are a few key skills I’ve found very helpful to use.
Skills to Help Me Deal with Family Gatherings
Breathing in on the count of four holding for four and breathing out on six (Four seconds, Four Seconds and Six Seconds). This breathing exercise helps me slow my heart rate, lower my anxiety and deal with the stuff going on around me.
I take an early morning, mid-afternoon and late night walk. I do the Turtle Walk at the end of each walk for 3 minutes. I walk with ease and slowly, to a four-second count. I walk slowly and practice mindfulness. I feel each footstep and I move slowly feeling the heel of my foot, the pad of my foot and then my toes touch the inside of my footwear with each step.
The goal is slowness with awareness.
Why do I feel what I feel with those I feel it with? I had an aunt, who has now died. Oh, I tried to like her as a kid. Yet I never could. Her judgment of others was harsh.
As an adult, I now understand the burdens she carried unknowingly and then shared! This does not excuse her adult behavior but it certainly helps me understand it. With understanding, I am better able to deflect the words and attitudes of others. Only if I feel safe. If I don’t feel safe then I need to take safe and appropriate precautions.
So there are three ideas on how to better deal with your holiday gatherings. I wish you safe travels and enjoyable times with those that love and respect you.
Here is a closing thought from the wise brain of Aubrey Cole:
Stress and upset usually result from unmet expectations or unreasonable demands. Really, is that the point of the holiday season? I don’t know anybody who on their deathbed said, “Yeah, I really wish I had spent the extra 3 hours in the kitchen instead of sitting on the floor playing with my kids.”
Keep things real, keep things in perspective, and remember that nothing external will ever give you the joy you really deserve.
Bonuses for Members:
Aubrey’s Tips On Visitation and Holidays
We all know that sickening feeling. Whether at the airport or a local exchange location, we’ve had to deliver our children to a known abuser because the court system required us to. If you’re like me, you’ve sobbed openly in a major airport more than once, catching knowing glances from others who understand what you’re feeling in that moment. Or you’ve had to put your kid in the car while you tried not to throw up or burst into tears in front of your babies.Join The Healing Academy or Sign-In To Access The Bonus Read the Bonus Module (Members Only)
Journaling Through Christmas With Carrie and Mags
In these pages, Mags shares some thoughts and writing prompts to support your healing from December 23, right through to the new year. You will engage in some good, old-fashioned looking back and facing forward as one year draws to a close and a new one approaches.
In these pages Carrie and Mags also share and discuss the holidays—and the feelings they trigger, through sharing our own writing inspired by these prompts in 2017. These are our own personal reflections and thoughts, as we experienced them.Join The Healing Academy or Sign-In To Download the Ebook
Midwinter Mindset Webinar Replay and Write-Up
With Christmas and the New Year on the horizon, we have an opportunity to engage in a conscious sifting through our experiences of the last 12 months—and to give careful thought as to how we’d like to spend the coming year. So let me share with you three ways you can make the most of your position on the threshold between old and newJoin The Healing Academy or Sign-In To Access The Bonus Read the Bonus Module (Healing Academy Plus Members Only)