Health

How to Go Home for the Holidays When Your Family Is a Bit Much

There are lots of ways to support, protect, and take care of yourself, even and especially when your weird uncle is being insufferable

by Jennifer Peepas
Dec 3 2019, 12:00pm

Illustration by Hunter French.

OK, so you're going home for the holidays. You've packed your two most flattering black sweaters; downloaded half the Hallmark channel in case your parents' Wi-Fi is untrustworthy; triple-checked that anxiety medications are in your carry-on; and let your therapist/best friends/various and sundry social media followers know to be on standby because at least some of what awaits you is going to suuuuuuuuuck.

If this last situation is the case: Here are some methods for surviving an out-of-(your chosen)-town holiday with your family in one piece—and maybe even squeezing in a few moments of genuine seasonal joy, or at least non-misery.

1. If you are, in fact, going, be conscious of why that is.

If you're determined to go somewhere that has you reading "survival" tips, you (hopefully!) have a good reason. Put some thought into why so you can keep that good reason with you throughout the trip. Maybe you want to see a grandparent while they're still around, spend time with cousins, or show up for someone in your family because they asked. If you know what your mission is, you'll have a helpful answer if the going gets tough and you're asking yourself, Why did I spend a month's rent on a plane ticket, again, exactly?

2. Plan ahead, and enlist your allies.

Talk to supportive family members about your needs before you go. People can run interference for you and set expectations with others like, "Make sure you use [person's] correct name and pronouns. No arguments. Just do it or stay home," ahead of time. Enlist the family gossip to work for you for a change, as in, "Yep, she's divorced—she wants everyone to know ahead of time so there won't be 10,000 questions about, 'Where's Steve?' No, I don't know what happened—if she wants us to know, she'll tell us. Are you still good to bring cranberry sauce?"

Folks in recovery, find out about local meetings and talk to your sponsors or counselors about setting a plan for what to do if your resolve feels shaky. Hosts can help by providing lots of non-boozy drinks—have those conversations before you go, and bring your own beverages when in doubt.

Whatever your situation: Ask close friends in your support system to be on call to send memes and remind each other that you're not alone and that your trip isn't forever.

3. Create sanctuary whenever and however you can.

Some families get huffy about"family" staying anywhere but "home," but, usually, the first time you break with "tradition" is the hardest. Not everyone can afford hotels, but they're a godsend if returning home means returning to the scene of childhood trauma or constant arguments. (Alternatively: Stay with friends in the area or with some of the the non-yelling relatives, housesit for somebody who is traveling, or leave the night of the holiday itself.) Staying offsite affords you peace, safety, a bed that isn't the dog's favorite recliner or something that used to inflate but doesn't now no matter how many times your dad swears at it—and also has a door that locks and that nobody is likely to knock on or yell through, a guaranteed "out" time, room for partners whether or not you've been married in a church, plus the possibility of actually resting on your vacation.

If you're locked into staying at the homestead, are there other ways you can take a break? Volunteer to run errands, help elders wrap gifts, plan a fun cousins' brunch, babysit small people so the big people can catch a nap, be the most dedicated dog-walker who ever lived. Rae McDaniel, a licensed therapist in Chicago who specializes in working with LGBTQ clients, said, "Affirming family members can take folks on breaks, which can be such a nice reprieve when you're stuck in the house." Maybe a trusted sibling or cousin can step in if things get contentious to initiate a, "We need ice right now, and I definitely need [all the non-terrible people] to come with me!" extraction mission.

If all else fails, try some self-care right where you are. Lott Hill, a college instructor and student advisor, recommended breathing exercises like the "4-7-8" breath during stressful moments. And embrace the kids’ table, even if you've technically outgrown it: "If you think the adults' table is going to be a thing that's going to make you crawl out of your skin, the kids' table is probably not going to be watching Fox News," Hill said.

4. Realize that some people might not be able to be decent to you, but you can be decent to yourself.

What if visiting family means seeing people who are hostile toward your identity? "Queer, transgender, and gender non-conforming people often get put into the position of having to be educators versus getting to be guests at family gatherings," said McDaniel. "There's tension between needing to be authentic and assertive and standing up for themselves versing wanting to make the visit 'peaceful and pleasant' and avoid 'drama,' which makes them feel like they have to be quiet and not stand up for themselves as much."

"Discomfort is not harm," McDaniel reminds their clients. "You're not harming your family by changing your name or asking them to use your correct pronouns; your identity is not 'causing a fight' or 'creating drama.'" Still, they said to be realistic about what certain people are capable of. "You're not going to be able to buy groceries at the hardware store, by which I mean, some people just are not going to be able to meet your needs." But, McDaniel tells their clients, arguing with someone isn't the only way to stand up for yourself. “Quietly changing the subject can be authentic; leaving the room and taking a walk can be authentic."

5. Take active control of conversations.

Some families like to decide that this one day, in front of everyone, over a big meal on the good dishes, is when each returning young person must 1) account for everything they've been up to in the past year around career, studies, romantic partnerships, and body size and shape so the group can deem if sufficient progress toward acceptable milestones has been made, and 2) respectfully receive unsolicited advice about "problems" that are in the minds of their beholders. It's the worst to feel like you have to audition for the approval of and defend your life to people you rarely see (and why is that?, I wonder).

Your family doesn't need to know every detail of your life just because they asked. Try deflecting with boring responses like "Interesting, Grandma, I'll think about it," which is technically true for about two seconds as you continue to disagree, or, "That's not my experience, but can you tell me what it was like when you were my age?" This can disarm people who are just dying to unload on you by distracting them with the appearance of compliance while inviting them to talk about themselves.

Instead of waiting to be quizzed, ask people anodyne questions like, "Is there any TV you're loving lately?" or, "What's the most fun thing you did this year?" When the "big" family conversation is contentious or irritating, feel free to be “rude” and start up side conversations with people you like. Chances are somebody else in that room also dreads the annual interrogation and will be grateful. Small talk can be annoying, but do you really want to have Big Talk with some of these people? Friend, u do not.

6. Reward yourself before and after the trip.

One of McDaniel's favorite self-care habits is "bookending" trips in order to be more grounded and to decompress. "This could mean setting up dinner before and after the trip with best friends, or doing something to take care of your body, like scheduling a favorite exercise class for the day you come back," they explained. "Whatever makes you feel grounded in the life you created for yourself and makes you feel valued and supported by the community you can count on." No matter how your holiday goes on the day itself, remember that you'll return to your real home—the one you decided for and built yourself—when it's over.

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