Love it or hate it, the holidays — for the most part — bring families together, sitting around the table and drinking a bit too much. Whilst it can be fun catching up with your hilarious cousin who you only see at this time of year, you might not hold quite the same sentiment for other family members, who you actively make the effort to avoid the other 360+ days of the year. Alas, there you are, all under one roof, exchanging niceties and the occasional backhanded compliment. For many, the most wonderful time of the year doesn’t quite translate as such when you’re stuck over the festive season navigating around those family members who you find triggering and/or damaging to your mental health. Nonetheless, every time December rolls around, we find ourselves in the same position, fighting through like a trooper and crossing our fingers that we’ll come out scot-free.
This year, we’re here to offer a few ideas to help out with some of the damage control that the family festivities in advance. Whilst they won’t fix everything, you can mix and match some of these and adjust them accordingly. Whether it’s your body-shaming or diet culture obsessed mother-in-law, your racist ‘it’s okay because I’m from a different generation’ grandma, or even your homophobic uncle, you might be able to make the holidays that bit more bearable for you. (Plus, some of your other targeted family members might thank you for it.)
1. Find an ally in another family member.
If you’re lucky to have someone that you can confide in, reach out to a family member that you trust before the festivities begin. Open a dialogue about your feelings, your concerns, and what you want to avoid whilst around certain family members. That could be anything from a simple sentence — ‘Aunt Irma will be on my back about my weight again this year and I really can’t deal. I’d really appreciate it if you could have my back…’ — to a full blown conversation about how said family member treats you and how it in turn affects you, and so on. With the advanced warning, they can look out for you and help offer you that bit more protection from the person that makes you feel like shit every year.
2. Allow festivity logistics to work in your favour.
If you’re hosting — or you’re close enough to the host to open up to them about your concerns — take advantage of having a say in the celebrations. Even the simplest of things, such as place settings at the dinner table, give you the opportunity to separate yourself as much as possible, meaning that conversation can remain minimal, or if you’re lucky, totally non-existent.
3. Come prepared with a reel of auto responses.
We’re not all lucky enough to have a family big enough to physically distance ourselves from those who we dread spending time with every year, but we can be pretty much always predict the kinds of comments that we’re going to hear from them. Some of them are the same every year, and some of them are new, but equally as anticipated. Whilst you’ll be fully stocked up on eye rolls and sighs ready for their arrival, it might help to throw a few one-liners into your roster for good measure. Knowing what’s likely to come, keeping a few of those up your sleeve can help stop and dissolve triggers in their tracks; if you can only think of one response, use it over and over in the hopes that you’ll bore them and they’ll change the subject. Plus if you’re sassy enough you might just be able to stun your creepy, misogynistic uncle into silence.
4. Use the opportunity to educate them.
Okay, this one requires a hell of a lot of energy and is by no means a requirement. If you think that the family member in question is likely to value your opinion and the information that you’re offering them, it may be a chance for you to teach them and open their mind. If your UKIP/Trump-supporting, anti-abortion, anti-immigration grandmother is the potential student, you may find yourself biting off more than you can chew — so you might decide that perhaps it’s not the best option. But, if you’re willing to spend the time and the emotional energy on educating them, go for it! It’s important to remember, though, that you owe absolutely nothing to absolutely nobody, so if you choose not to go down this road, it bears no reflection on you.
5. Take the ‘ignorance is bliss’ approach.
If you don’t feel like talking and you’re able to mentally filter, block and delete (kind of like you can on IG), then ignorance is definitely a good option. It requires an element of mental strength, but provides multiple benefits: the first being that you have control over what comments or information you digest, the second being that you can drown out your calorie-counting mother-in-law with a more enjoyable conversation, and of course, that she’ll lowkey be pissed that you’re ignoring her. What’s not to love?
6. Carve out some ‘me time’.
The holidays can feel like it’s lasting a lifetime if you’re inundated with family members — even the ones that you enjoy spending time with. Each day, be sure that you make time for some time on your own. Whether that be in the form of taking the dog for a walk or having a lay down in your room, give yourself some cooling-off time. Especially beneficial if you want to avoid starting World War III, but feel that you’re merely moments away from strangling your partner’s homophobic sister. If you find yourself sat at the table, when you can’t really go and take a time-out, but things are particularly distressing, even excusing yourself for five minutes to do some deep breathing in the bathroom, processing the situation and gathering your thoughts can do some good.
In extreme cases where you’ve done all you can to defuse the situation that you’ve found yourself in, but it’s to no avail, leave (if you can). It’s not always an option, but protecting yourself is the most important thing. You could even reach out to a friend and see if they’re free for you to hang with them and their family for a few hours, just to offer you a different environment free from those causing you distress. You are the priority and it’s your holiday as much as it’s anyone else’s — mental health matters, regardless of whether ‘tis the season or not.