5 Tips To Handle Family Dynamics During The Holidays

During the holidays we often enter a state of feeling totally stuffed ... and it’s not just from the mashed potatoes, cookies, and pies. We also feel overly full, because family dynamics can feel heavy, daunting, and simply too much.

A few years ago, every time I'd go home for the holidays, I seemingly slipped back into my 14 year-old Self in a matter of seconds. It’s like my real life in New York City as an adult who had her own life didn’t exist. I got annoyed at the same things that used to drive me up the wall when I was actually 14 and I felt like everyone was treating me like a child instead of the adult I was.

The truth is, family dynamics are extremely strong and complex.

We were born into these dynamics and they've been playing themselves out for many years largely without conscious interruption. Everyone has a role that they play in the family in order for the family puzzle to fit together. If one person changes (or merely grows up), this constellation suddenly doesn’t fit anymore.

However, all the other puzzle pieces are resisting that change—not necessarily because they like how things are—but because it's familiar. Familiarity is safe. Change, even when positive, can be scary, because there is an element of the unknown.

So, what happens when we go home for the holidays is that people come together as slightly changed puzzle pieces who want to be seen as their new Selves. Yet, everyone else still expects things to be as they used to be. So, we fall into old patterns and the typical family dynamics play out once more. We forget who we are today and who we've become since leaving home. We feel overwhelmed and powerless.

I know from my own life as well as from those of friends and clients, that this time of year can be just as warm and beautiful as it can be painful and challenging. That’s why I want to offer you 5 ways in which you can prepare yourself for a holiday season that feels good, nurturing, and positive.

1. Create a solid understanding of who you are and what matters to you.

Before you head home, take some time to write down all the things that you love about your life today. Note what your home feels like. Jot down your top three values. Think about the kind of relationships you're actively inviting into your life today. Write down things you are proud of having accomplished. The point is to create a solid understanding of yourself as an adult who values herself/ himself. The more you can foster this awareness, the more you can prevent self-doubt, insecurities, and frustration from creeping in when you're back at your family’s dinner table.

2. Don’t try to solve other people’s problems.

One of the most common traps is that people get caught up in triangulated situations. That means that two people are communicating and trying to solve their problems through a third person (perhaps you?!). So, instead of getting triangulated, encourage people to either bring up their issues directly to that person or to just let them go. You can offer advice for how they might start this conversation, but make sure that you're very clear about not getting involved verbally or taking on their stuff emotionally.

3. Carve out time to get into your body.

With copious amounts of food, alcohol, family chatter, and questions about your life and your future plans, it’s important to take a break and get moving. Not only is it essential if you're concerned about gaining weight over the holidays, but it’s also crucial if you want to preserve your inner calm. Moving your body means that you'll feel yourself and that's the #1 way to return to your reality and the life you've created for yourself.

4. Allow other people their autonomy and their opinions.

It’s not your job to change someone else. So when your uncle says something that sets you off, try to breathe into your belly and go on with your day. It’s likely that he's been saying things like this for many years by now and you won’t change him overnight, especially not with everyone else around. Just as you want to live in your own reality, other people can live in theirs, too.

5. Set boundaries that make you feel good.

If you know that you don’t feel well in certain situations (i.e. when people are arguing, when too much time is spent eating, or when your mom asks you to come with her to the store for the tenth time) it’s completely OK to say that you need some time to yourself or that a certain activity doesn’t make you feel good. Don’t hesitate to express your needs. It’s an important step to take for your own well-being and your own independence. Plus, it will create the space for other people to do the same.

In the comments below, I'd love to hear from you: What's something you can do during the holidays when family dynamics feel challenging?

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