After a year apart due to the pandemic, many are looking forward to the upcoming holidays with excitement. However, for others, getting back together with loved ones may also mean dealing with a narcissistic parent, family members with anger issues, or sibling rivalry which can bring up feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression. Whether you have been away for one year or several, here are some tips to support your mental health as you navigate the stressors of holiday parties.
1. Have a Mental Health Ally at the Party
When dealing with high-conflict families, it may not always be easy or helpful to confront or argue with insensitive comments or questions. While answering which TV shows we watched over quarantine may be easy, sometimes relatives or loved ones ask questions that violate our boundaries around what we feel comfortable sharing. For example, some families may ask inappropriate questions about eating habits or make comments about body image which may be difficult to navigate if you are coping with disordered eating issues. If this sounds like your family, it is helpful to identify someone who will be at the family event with who you can discuss your concerns beforehand and who can be your ally for redirecting conversations, questions, or comments that are not supportive of your mental health. This can be anyone (a cousin, friend, partner) who you can share your concerns with and who can have an ear out for those uncomfortable situations.
Ask this person whether they can redirect the conversation, which might look like:
Aunt Suzy to You: You’ve changed a lot since the last time I saw you, and my mom told me you were depressed a couple of months ago! What happened?
Ally: Hey Aunt Suzy! Can you tell that great story again about how you got lost while on your honeymoon?
This gives you a chance to either exit the conversation or join in on a more neutral topic.
You can also use your ally as an excuse to leave an uncomfortable situation:
Uncle Joe to You: How come you’re having a second helping of pumpkin pie? You don’t want to eat too much!
You: You know what Uncle Joe, I just remembered that Ally asked me to help them clean up the kitchen. I’m going to go do that.
Having an ally at the holiday party means that you can navigate questions or comments that are not supportive of your mental health without having to engage in direct confrontation. Especially in families with high conflict and with parents with narcissistic or borderline personality traits, redirection can be much more effective in ensuring that you can maintain the boundaries you need in your family. Your mental health ally can help with redirection and can help to reinforce your boundaries around your mental health with others in your family.
2. Have a Coping Plan at the Ready
When we are feeling anxious, sad, or overwhelmed in the moment, it can feel really difficult to identify the things that help us to feel better. That’s why having a coping plan already in place can be helpful. A coping plan is a list of the things that help to ground and regulate strong emotions that you can use in the moment to help you cope in stressful situations. Before the holiday parties begin (maybe directly after you read this article!) make a list of things that you know help you to feel better when you are feeling anxious or overwhelmed. Make sure this list is in a place that is readily accessible (like the notes app on your phone or a piece of paper you can keep in your wallet or purse) and review it before you leave for each get-together. That way, once you’ve escaped from the situation with Uncle Joe above, you already have a plan to help regulate the emotions that an unkind question like that may have brought up.
Some examples of ideas to have on your coping plan:
- Listening to a playlist of favorite songs (and making this playlist before you go to the party)
- Watching a couple of funny clips on YouTube or Tiktok (favorite these clips beforehand so you don’t have to search for them)
- Texting a trusted person a funny meme that represents how you’re feeling
- Giving a hug or starting a conversation with a trusted person at the get-together (possibly your Ally for tip #1?). Someone who you know will make you laugh, or who always trusts your opinions on the things you care about, or even your little cousin who you know will spend 15 minutes straight telling you about their favorite toy
- Engaging with a positive sensory experience (smelling the coffee that is brewing after dinner, touching a smooth stone that you keep in your pocket, looking at a picture of a soothing scene)
Add as many things to this list that you know help you to feel better and go through the coping plan until you feel ready to go back to the get-together. Add to and remove ideas from the coping plan as you go. Notice which coping skills do and do not help you to feel calmer, grounded, or in control as you navigate stressful situations across the holiday season, and edit your coping plan accordingly.
3. Set Boundaries about What you Want to do this Season
If our year apart has taught us anything it’s that there is a lot more flexibility in how we can celebrate important events and honor holiday traditions. Apply this lesson to this holiday season by taking a moment to reflect on which events really matter to you and which ones you may participate in because others expect you to.
Notice how you have felt in the past after leaving certain events versus others- do you always leave your Friendsgiving party feeling rejuvenated and your family Thanksgiving feelings depressed or anxious? Maybe it is the other way around? Whatever the case may be, how you feel before, during, and after holiday traditions is important information, and can help you to set boundaries around the commitments you choose to make this holiday season. We may all tolerate an awkward dinner or office party, but if you notice that seeing a sibling whom you always argue with or staying with a parent with borderline personality traits has you feeling depressed, anxious, or overwhelmed year after year this may be a sign that adapting the usual tradition would be best to support your mental health.
For example, you may choose to leave a certain get-together early or go a little later. This may also look like booking a room at a nearby hotel (if financially possible) or staying with a friend who is local, instead of staying the night at your family’s house for a holiday if anger issues at home make you feel anxious about staying at your family home for multiple days. Or if you notice always feeling self-critical and depressed after talking about work with an overly competitive sibling, you may choose to only share family-related news in the holiday cards you send out. Whatever the adaptation may be, setting boundaries around what you do and do not want to do this holiday season can help you to be more present and enjoy the traditions that you love most. While others may have their expectations for you, you can best enjoy yourself, and being with those you care most about when you and your mental health are cared for first.
It’s okay to feel anxious, depressed, stressed, or overwhelmed as the holiday season begins to ramp up and our commitments to family, friends, and work increase. Knowing what will help you to feel supported when dealing with difficult family dynamics, whether it is having an ally at the party, a coping plan ready to go on your phone, or a firm 9 pm curfew for leaving the party, can help to support your mental health and enable you to enjoy the parts of this season that truly matter to you.
If you are currently coping with parents with narcissistic or borderline personality traits, high-conflict families, or other stressful family dynamics, or if you find yourself feeling anxious, depressed, or overwhelmed this holiday season, please feel free to schedule an appointment with Dr. Grace Waite, a postdoctoral fellow at the Integrated Care Clinic. Your mental health is invaluable and with the support of a mental health provider, you can learn how to cope with stressors and improve your relationship with yourself and others during the holiday season, and any time of year.