Newsletter, Issue 2
Christmas is coming… the decorations are up, Christmas music is everywhere, cards are vying for space and your fridge and freezer are no doubt filling up with goodies. Yet for many of us, this supposedly festive season can be the most stressful time of year.
Why is it So Stressful?
Because, Christmas is a family time.
Whilst part of us probably welcomes the familiarity of being with our parents, siblings, and children, it’s not surprising that another part is likely to be unsure about, or even dread, the old patterns and our ‘old’ role within the family. It’s not that we don’t and can’t change our relationships with our close family, it’s just it takes time and it’s often easier to revert to old familiar ways.
As our relationships change and grow over the years, it is perfectly normal to have tough times with our partner and these can be even more painful and impossible surrounded by family and their expectations, at such a ‘happy’ time of year, even if they are wanting to be supportive. Some single individuals or those without family have the freedom of choosing a group of people that feel very important and like a family, though Christmas can still bring a sense of distance and detachment.
For many who don’t spend much time with family during the rest of the year it can feel a bit schizophrenic! Your life has changed, you’ve changed, yet you find yourself reacting in the same old way to your mum, dad, brother, sister, or other family. Or you manage to be your new self but it feels so odd or uncomfortable that over time you gradually revert.
The good news is – It’s normal!
You spent years of your life living with these people, in relationship with them, and learning about relationship from them. There’s a family way – whether you like it or not! As you set off on your individual life leaving home, perhaps creating your own family, you find yourself recreating and continuing some of this family way, whilst leaving behind or reacting against other bits.
There will always be a tension between being an individual and being part of a relationship or family. With the added stress of Christmas with so much ‘doing’, from buying and giving presents and cards, preparing large meals and entertaining, we often don’t take time to ‘be’ with our feelings, or to be aware of our relationships with others and consider how we might do it differently.
7 Tips to Help Reduce Christmas Stress
So, what can you do to reduce the stress and enjoy being with your family this Christmas?
1. Value relationships over the tasks. Make time to listen and talk with those around you (from yourself, your partner to family and friends) alongside all the preparations, considering what you want in your relationships with different members of your family whilst staying curious about what others might want. It’s easy to over-focus on perfecting the Christmas tasks and traditions, thinking these are at the heart of a successful Christmas, when generally their purpose is to enjoy the time with others.
2. Know your new boundaries. Reflect on how you’ve changed over the last year, and what that might be like for you, and different members of your wider family, when you spend time together. Often when we change we have new limits or boundaries about what we are happy for others to say or do in relationship with us, so being aware of these in advance can help. Remember other family members will have changed and have new boundaries too!
3. See the funny side. Humour can be great at alleviating tension or bringing a sense of togetherness within families, so try not taking yourself too seriously. ‘Family’ jokes are often about the past and ‘old’ family roles, so may feel restrictive, yet it’s always possible to introduce a new spin. What’s the joke you’d like to rewrite to better reflect where you are or where you’re going? Just a note of warning around sarcasm, which can be hurtful and destructive. If this is the usual humour within your family, you might want to think about if and how you can say when it isn’t funny for you, and notice when that may be true for others.
4. Know your needs. What makes you happy at Christmas? Knowing this and sharing it with the family you will spend Christmas with might seem obvious, but most of us expect those that ‘supposedly know us best’ to be mind readers. Whilst it may be impossible for everyone to have what they want, by sharing your wishes you are less likely to feel angry or resentful if some of them aren’t feasible and there is a greater chance yours will be included! It also encourages others to say what they want too, so your family can design a Christmas together that has the possibility to make everyone happy.
5. Share expectations & discuss arrangements up front. If you have a partner, make time to hear and try to understand each other’s dreams, expectations and concerns about Christmas, especially for time planned with family. Don’t expect to agree on everything, or for it to suddenly transform your relationship (though it may help!). This gives you the basis to make joint decisions, support each other and plan a Christmas together with things you both want. If you are spending Christmas with wider family, particularly for any extended time, then consider beforehand what might make it more enjoyable and discuss the logistics in advance. This might range from saying you may go for a walk, a drive or to your bedroom for some space (‘being together’ all the time can feel a real pressure), to agreeing mealtimes, or specific details around children.
6. Be realistic. Don’t expect relationships with your family to dramatically change overnight just because you have changed. If you’ve always found it hard to spend time with some members of your family, then it will probably be hard again. Consider how you want to handle being with them beforehand, so you feel at choice. This is particularly important if you’re part of a step family, where everyone’s needs cannot be met at the same time, and logistics are challenging. It is almost impossible to create ‘one big happy family’, so don’t try to! Try to notice the differing needs and make decisions that create positive experiences for parts of the family, and have a mix of different Christmases happening alongside each other. The hard truth is Christmas contact or access is rarely going to be ideal for all parties.
7. Enjoy what works. We are often so busy noticing what hasn’t changed, or is not OK, that we forget to enjoy and celebrate the things that are working, however small. Have a chat with your family about what you’re enjoying as you go along.
Well, I’m off to chat more with my husband about how we want our Christmas week to be, and to call my mother-in-law again about our time with her!