Boris Thomas, JD, PhD

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Home for The Holidays: A Survival Guide

Visiting family during the holiday season can be a beautiful thing.  We are reunited with people we love, places that are familiar to us, and special traditions that have great meaning.  Some of us experience days of unending familial bliss.  Others might be more ambivalent about family visits.  For those whose holiday reunions might be less than ideal, following are some practical approaches to taking care of yourself when going home to visit your family.

Nine Family Visit Survival Strategies

Planning is essential.  Think back to the things that gave you difficulty the last time you were visiting family.  If you're going back with a boyfriend, girlfriend or spouse take a moment to problem solve beforehand.  If you're going back by yourself, run the scenarios by your friends.  It's not unlikely that they will have encountered similar challenges. What is it that didn't work last time that you might be able to do  better during your next visit?  

9) Evaluate where you'll be staying and for how long.

  • Just how much space is there for you? Will you be in a guest room, sharing a room, or sleeping in a common space?

  • What will you be sleeping on? Should you consider bringing another pillow or two? 
  • What are the habits of your family members, and how will those affect you?  Is it going to be impossible to get into the bathroom?  Will you be the one light sleeper in a house full of noisy night owls?  

You may want to have your own space, but it may come at the price of hurt feelings if you suggest that you will be staying at a hotel rather than the familial home.  If you feel you must stay in the family home, think about the number of days you will be with your family.  Maybe your usual long visit would be better if trimmed by a few days.  A college friend of mine shared that she makes four days seem like six by flying in late on day one and departing early on day six. 

8)  Bring along items of comfort.

Going home will throw you into the magnetic pull of someone else's domain.  You may feel as if you've lost your sense of self. To the extent it's possible, carry things with you that allow you to feel connected to your life in your own home

  • Pack your comfy slippers, sweats, or your bathrobe.
  • Your own music, whether played on a headset or your computer for a little while before going to sleep or waking in the morning is a good tonic.
  • If you're in the middle of a book, bring it along and dedicate some time to reading it, even if only 15 or 20 minutes each day of your visit.
  • If you have special dietary needs, bring what you need, or buy the necessary items when you first arrive. Don't count on having those needs satisfied by your family, or waste time feeling resentful when they aren't.
  • If travel arrangements and budget will permit, and if your family will be amenable to it, consider bringing your pet.  You will be profoundly comforted by your four-legged companion.

7)  Build in escape hatches. 

Preparation is the key. You may have to do some preliminary, but generally easy web research.

  • If you work out, is there a gym near your family's home where you an get a day-pass or two?  Don't forget to bring your workout clothes and gear.
  • If grabbing a moment alone over an espresso at a coffee house is an important part of your day, do a quick search to see where you might find one.
  • If your family is in a rural or suburban area, will you be able to get out of the house using a family member's car, or might a rental car give you a needed dose of independence?

For everyone who relies on internet connectivity, here are some web tips:

  • If the family home has internet, but no WIFI, you might consider lobbying for the installation of a WIFI router well before you get there.
  • If your family's home doesn't have Internet, go to your mobile carrier's website to get a sense of signal strength where you are going.
    • If mobile signals are weak, find out where there are internet hotspots that you can use and bring along the devices you will need.
    • If mobile signals are decent, consider purchasing a time limited hotspot/data plan from your mobile carrier that you can use to connect another device to the internet. 

6)  Remember, it's not always about you.

  • If you begin to feel out of sorts and perhaps a little unreal--as if you have lost your identity, remind yourself that it's temporary and that there are multiple players in the family drama.
  • Be thoughtful about your expectations. Don't count on having your emotional needs satisfied by your family, or waste time feeling resentful when they aren't
  • Remember how much you have changed and reflect on the way your life away from your family works differently.

5) Designate a "life line."

  • Before you leave for the holidays, make arrangements with a good friend to be available for some support or to serve as a sounding board, whether it's by email, text or phone.
  • If you travel home accompanied by a loved one (spouse, boyfriend, girlfriend, or pal) create little oases when you can step away from everyone, stop, debrief, and then return to the family situation refreshed.  

4)  De-escalate and breathe.

  • If things start getting uncomfortable and conflict is in the air, slow things down.  Take a deep breath and step away from the situation.   Shift your attention to something altogether different that makes you feel better.  Go for a walk, drop into a game of candy crush, or even take a nap.
  • Remind yourself of your family members' best and most positive qualities.  Redirect interactions so you can connect with the family members at those positive places.   
  •  With distance away from your family comes perspective.  You may notice behaviors and familial patterns that you hadn't seen before. Or you may be irritated that old problematic patterns persist.  Try not to press hot buttons.  Even if what you want to say is dead on accurate, consider holding your tongue.  The statement you believe is helpful or truthful might not be taken well, leading to discomfort during your stay. 

3) Go easy on yourself.

The holidays present opportunities for excess, and it's hard to resist.  You may realize that you're having way more wine and spirits than usual, or you're  overeating.  However, your overindulgence in food or alcohol may not just be about overabundance.  It could be a way of soothing yourself when things get tense.  Only you will know the difference, but if the reason for your overindulgence is the need to self soothe, try not to beat yourself up afterwards.  Plan on reverting to your normal behaviors when you return to your own home.  

2)  Consider a "halo" visit.

Visiting a week or so before or after a holiday may engender mild disappointment from parents and siblings who would like to see you "on the special day."  However, your travel will be less stressful, the dynamics in your family home will be less intense, and you will have more space and more quality time to be with family.  Although you will not get "full credit" for visiting on the holiday itself, you will benefit from the halo effect of having visited in close proximity to it. 

1) Pass on the visit altogether.

If year after year you leave family gatherings feeling depressed, bad about yourself, angry, negative, and/or injured, you might want to consider forgoing the family visit altogether.  For most that's a hard decision to make, but once made, this option provides a great deal of relief.  Also, it opens up the possibility for you to take ownership of how you celebrate the holidays and to create  your own--maybe even better--holiday traditions separate from those of your family. And, passing on this year's visit doesn't necessarily mean you won't ever go back again.  It might just be a one-off break.

Happy holidays and best wishes for easy and safe travel, hopefully without delays or other inconveniences.   Remember, don't drink and drive.  

May the new year bring you good health and a wealth of opportunities for success and contentment.  


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