In my last blog post, I shared some suggestions for different ways to gather with family. We talked about reframing how you think about family gatherings and what they look like for your unique family. Sometimes, a little change is called for to make everyone’s lives a little less stressful and a bit more simple (especially during the holidays!). And modifying our gatherings can help with that.
Or you may have more complicated reasons for why you want to take a new approach to family gatherings. You may need to gather with family in different ways this year because of some difficult, toxic, or unhealthy family dynamics. Maybe you feel like you need or want to gather — but want to do it in a way that feels safe to you. That’s absolutely valid (and good for you for having that self-awareness).
Resentment and bitterness can easily spoil your enjoyment of your time together. But having clear conversations about expectations, boundaries, and the ways you feel best about meeting together can help immensely.
How and when to have those conversations with your family is up to you (if you think it’s safe to have them in the first place). Remember that having difficult conversations with family won’t always be accepted or welcome.
Sometimes, the best thing is to excuse yourself or your family from situations that are unhealthy (like going back into an alcoholic’s home).
I recently had a session with a woman who is strongly considering ending her relationship with her siblings because it’s so toxic. Maybe you can relate. When gathering with family, you might slip back into the patterns and roles you played as a child. This can be understandably frustrating and distressing.
Or perhaps you’re dealing with people who constantly try too hard and make too much of an effort to orchestrate the “perfect” family gathering — when they really should be putting that effort toward actually connecting. That sort of dissonance can be incredibly uncomfortable.
And unfortunately, there are also people who are really not aware of themselves enough to be mindful of others, whether that’s from a physical illness, a mental illness, or a personality disorder. You might feel slighted or disappointed.
It’s important to make a plan that helps you navigate situations like these so they don’t rob you of your joy during the gathering. How do you spend enough time that they feel loved and you still get to maintain your boundaries? Maybe you stay in a hotel instead of your family’s home. Perhaps you limit the visit to two or three hours. Or you ask them to gather in a more neutral setting, like another family member’s home or a restaurant. Figure out what feels good and safe to you.
And remember, it’s good to have an exit strategy. (That can be as simple as saying you have a friend back home who really needs you. Or that your kid is sick, and you’ve gotta go. Say what you have to to make the exit you need.)
But sometimes, clear boundaries and a good exit strategy aren’t quite enough.
Sometimes, the solution is a conscious break in the cadence with which you meet with your family. Maybe you meet less often or for shorter intervals. Maybe you do some work on setting stronger boundaries and perfecting your exit strategy.
It’s okay to dial back the gathering and take a break from family until you can be your more evolved self when entering into those very tricky places with your parents and siblings — and NOT revert to your old behaviors and family “roles.”
Gathering with family doesn’t have to be something you dread. There are ways to prepare for a better experience this year, even if you know it won’t be perfect. Take the time to reflect, evaluate what matters to you, and plan to engage in a way that brings you joy, not heartache.
Here’s to healthier, happier gatherings this year. Good luck!