How to Manage the Holiday Season with Your Own Griswolds

5 min read
Tim Douglas / Pexels

Tim Douglas / Pexels

We often don’t realize how unstable our family is until we start describing them to someone else. However, people from dysfunctional families are not destined for a dysfunctional life. We can’t choose family, but we can choose antidotes to thrive despite our genetic roots, no matter the season.

It’s not the holidays without a little emotional scarring. It’s also a time of year for constant comparison. We compare how we celebrate, how much we have, how much we give and receive, and how happy our families are, all the way down to comparing our own families to those of our partner, and even our own childhood memories and expectations to our current realities.

Parent: Do you think I’m a bad mom, Timmy?
Child: My name is Travis.

There’s an expression that expectations are resentments waiting to happen. Expectations can be either positive or negative. It’s going to be amazing to have the whole family together, thinks your mother-in-law. This weekend will be a train wreck, you mutter to your spouse. And so, our gatherings can become self-fulfilling prophecies on the basis of how we think and act going into them.

Usually, we’re comparing them to idealized childhood versions that never existed, or have hazy memories that are half conflated with schmoopy Hollywood movies. For some of us, it’s recent family fiascos that maybe aren’t quite as bad as we recall that stick out in our minds; neither of which match realities we’ve lived through or are likely to encounter.

How to Get Back to ‘Chilling in an Applebee’s Parking Lot With Family, While Chewing a Toothpick and Holding a To-Go Box’ Status

Family doesn’t always respect family. Family can gaslight, manipulate, and control. Family can disrespect. Family can abuse. Family can take the most toxic form of relationship you know. In such instances, you don’t owe anyone anything but yourself. Some of the hardest people to cut off are family members. Even the worst people you know have value: They can teach you how not to act.

One thing that can always help in stifling family visits is having avenues of escape such as creating solid plans in the day to get out of the house, even if it’s a feigned errand. Kids are great for this: “Oh jeez, we’re low on diapers and need to drive 45 minutes to the boutique store that sells our favorite organic brand that doesn’t cinch or bunch up, and smells of cedar.”

Create Time Buffers and Emotional Boundaries Into Your Itinerary

One hour with family can be seven years on Earth. But there is enjoyment beyond fleeting breaks of scrolling social media in the bathroom. Yet just the right amount of family dysfunction has made some of the most creative and funny people we all know.

For intense social situations, always have a ready-made escape. Create a bug-out plan ready to activate. Tell your family that you took up walking each day and you have to get your steps in. Even if you don’t. Or you could go into a back room and do some pushups and planking to clear your head from all the sitting and forced civility. It will keep your core strong and your body out of family court.

Aunt: Why are you wearing so much cologne?
Me: Why is no one eating your scalloped potatoes?

When Uncle Jim grabs his phone to share photos of his new model railroad blueprints, excuse yourself to go check on dinner or wash the gravy boat. When your mother-in-law starts her unsolicited commentary on your parenting style, head to the kitchen to make cherries jubilee from scratch.

And to avoid any Come at Me, Bro! scenarios, haul laundry up and down from the basement for the cousins, take an hour or two to fix the clog in the bathtub, groom your niece’s Bichon Frisé, or check your baby’s diaper rash for a half an hour. Relatives will never complain about how helpful you’re being, and you can duck out of any conversation under a real or assumed guise of familial dedication. Plus, you’ll sleep better on the guest twin bed knowing you’re not the black sheep of the family.

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If You Can’t Lessen Your Source of Stress, Make a Literal Run (or, Walk) for It

Running gives you an endorphin-generated runner’s high and clears your head like nothing else. What’s more, you immediately feel both the physical and psychological benefits. A 12-minute mile is just as far as a six-minute mile; take your time and find your groove. Joining a walking or running group is a great way to challenge and inspire your exercise, while keeping your mind off the childhood hurt you may still feel. And it may even help you meet some spectacular people. If you’re not sure where to find one, ask the staff at your local running shoe store. Become an apex predator chasing seasonal serenity.

Remember: Many people are in therapy learning how to deal with people who should be in therapy.

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