The Holidays: Tougher Than They May Appear

What patterns have you noticed in your past festive occasions that haven't worked for you? Here's how to fix any issues for good

The holidays are supposed to be times of peace, joy, and good tidings. But for millions of families around the world, it will be anything but a peaceful, relaxing occasion.

From bickering relatives to alcoholic parents to siblings who have never let go of years of resentments, alas, the holidays can be quite challenging — and far from “the Hallmark card” descriptions of bliss and inner peace.

So what are the patterns you noticed in your past holidays that don’t seem to work for you? Most of us, if we look deeply enough, will see a repetition over the years of the same issues, the same challenges, the same problems … but we keep going back for more.

Too many times, we will not look at our own role in the dysfunction of family holidays. We want to blame everyone else. Yet the only common denominator in our dysfunctional holiday events is our return to these events — expecting that this year, something different will happen. It won’t — until we do something ourselves to change our approach to the holidays.

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Perhaps you might be imagining right now, “But I can’t do anything about Uncle Bill’s drinking …” or “It’s out of my control that my mom enables my dad to be angry like Scrooge during the holidays … ”

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I’ve helped hundreds of individuals learn how to deal in a different way with family members during the holidays — for a happier and healthier time for all. Here are four essential insights to share.

1.) During many holidays, we have unrealistic expectations of how this year might be different from others. Stay rooted in reality. If family members have not done the work to heal their past, then you’re probably going to walk into the same environment this year as in the past.

If you catch yourself asking, “Why did so-and-so get so drunk again?” or “Why did Uncle Sam or Aunt Pat continue bickering over dinner?” — take notice. Have you struggled in the past with your mom and dad? Sisters or brothers? Aunts and uncles? Grandmothers and grandfathers? In-laws? If so, don’t expect things to be different. Accept the reality that you’re from a dysfunctional family — and, if you choose to go home, that most of the past will be repeated again.

Related: How Forgiveness Made Me a Better Man

2.) Don’t stay in the house with everyone else. It’s one of the biggest challenges we face: We don’t want to offend people, so we stay in the insanity, where everyone else is staying. Get a hotel room! I don’t care if you have to stretch your budget; it will be one of the smartest things you’ll ever do. Then you can leave when you want to leave, arrive when you want to arrive, and skip all the chaos and drama that has happened in the past. You have an escape route.

And what if people push back? What if family members get upset because you’re setting boundaries by having a hotel room? The independent person — you — explains in advance what your plans are this year. You don’t surprise others by walking in and telling them you have a hotel room. You let them know in advance. The best way to do this? Via a family email. Include everyone. And tell them why, instead of staying in your home this year, you’re going to stay in a hotel.

Can you be honest? Can you risk rejection? This is the beginning of becoming an independent person versus a co-dependent person. The co-dependent person is more concerned about what everyone else thinks. The independent person understands there’s going to be pushback, that there will be people who will be totally unhappy — but they do it anyway because it is the right thing for them to do. They know sanity is much more important than anything else. And they also know that this year, they’re going to have the best holiday possible by removing the triggers from past holiday experiences that create so much drama and chaos.

Related: Why I Love the Holidays

This takes confidence and self-esteem. And I promise you, it will be more worth it.

3.) Many arguments escalate because we have a desire to be right. We can’t let someone else be right; we have to set people straight, whether you’re talking about politics, religion, or the economy. If someone at your event has a different opinion, allow that person to have a different opinion! There’s no need to go to battle as you have in the past over conversations that in reality mean nothing. Bite your tongue.

I worked with someone who, upon returning home every year, listened to her mom consistently berate her father — whom she had divorced 10 years ago. It was unending series of dramatic, inane conversations. No matter how many times the woman (the daughter of these two) tried to stick up for her dad, the mom would come up with another experience or example that “proved” the father was unreliable and unkind.

This year, it’s going to be different. This woman has already made up her mind. After I asked this individual to write down whatever she needs to do differently this year to make the holidays more pleasant, she’s decided she’s going to shut up whenever her mother brings up how terrible her father was as a husband and dad.

This woman has been trying to defend her dad for 10 years — and the end result has always been intense arguments, chaos and drama.

The woman has realized that unless her mom gets help and counseling to let go of her intense resentments, the conversation is always going to go down the same path. Why do we follow that path? Why do we engage with someone who we know has a totally different opinion than ours? We want to be right. We want to set the record straight. In this case, she’s been trying to defend her dad for 10 years — and the end result has always been intense arguments, chaos and drama.

I recommended she email the mom ahead of time and tell her that this year she doesn’t have any desire to get into arguments or discussions about Dad. She asked her mom to agree with her, to leave her father out of conversations during the holidays. She never received a reply from her mom — which tells us a lot about the mom and her angry state.

If this is similar to how it goes in your family, don’t expect your mom to change. Accept her as she is. She’s angry, bitter, and will not see any side other than her own until she gets help. And if she never gets help? Her opinion about this woman’s father will never change. Stop smashing your head into the wall and learn to let it go.

4.) Forgive yourself, and forgive others now. This is one of the most challenging things people face. Forgiveness is powerful. It releases anxiety, resentment, anger, guilt and shame. Forgiveness, as an action step, is an essential key to being able to live a healthy, productive and passionate life.

Related: How to Reconcile with Your Kid if You Think You’ve Blown It

Before going home for the holidays, do some work to let go of the past. That means you! Not your parents, not your brothers or sisters, not your relatives, but you. If you do the work now to begin to forgive people from the past, you’ll go home with an open heart and be less argumentative in the process.

It’s not easy to forgive. As a counselor for over 26 years and as a coach, I’ve helped thousands of people forgive individuals who have raped them, molested them, cheated on them or stolen money from them. Forgiveness is not simply turning the other cheek. It’s much deeper than that.

Probably the most powerful form of forgiveness is done in the form of written letters that will never be sent to any of our family members, relatives or friends over the holidays.

So get out your paper and pen. It begins with writing about your frustration, your anger, or maybe even your rage at how people treat others or us during this time of year. It’s something in counseling called desensitization; we continue writing about something that’s bothering us until we become bored, numb, and desensitized to the issue. In that state, we have released our rage and anger to the point that we can probably see people who have upset us without having a knee-jerk reaction.

We forgive people first by going deeply into our anger, resentment, rage, sadness.

After we write about these people and these situations that really bother us, and we reach that point of feeling a lack of emotion to those experiences, then and only then do we begin to write letters of forgiveness.

The letters of forgiveness are also never sent to anyone. The reason for these letters? We remove the anger and put forgiveness in its place. In the forgiveness letters, we specifically forgive people for the things they’ve done in the past that have upset us.

We forgive people first by going deeply into our anger, resentment, rage, sadness. And once all of those emotions are cleared out, then, and only then, do we begin the process of forgiveness.

Related: Three Holiday Traditions for Families Everywhere 

It’s not simply turning the other cheek, by the way. It’s much deeper than that. Work with a counselor, therapist or a life coach to help you truly understand how to forgive yourself and others now — and this holiday season will be much, much different from the rest.

David Essel is the author of nine books, a master life coach, and an addiction recovery coach with offices in Fort Myers, Florida.

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