Top 9 Ways to Practice Self-Care During the Holidays Around Difficult People

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! It’s also the time of year when we feel surrounded by obligations. We’re expected to give gifts, see family, enjoy events, all with a smile on our face. What if, though, those things aren’t as fun for you as they make them look on TV? For you, sure, there are cute decorations and some tasty foods, but you also have to deal with Aunt Karen at family gatherings. It’s no wonder that “the most wonderful time of the year” is also a time of year when stress, anxiety, and requests for therapy sessions shoot through the roof. That’s where self-care comes in. How can you keep yourself healthy and in the holiday spirit this year?

1. Set realistic expectations. The inner child wants nothing more than that magical Christmas experience that’s portrayed in the movies. We want to believe that the holidays will make the difficult people in our lives more agreeable, for once. We envision snow, hot chocolate, and togetherness. These are wonderful things to desire. However, you now need to consider what you can reasonably expect from the people in your life. Set a few priorities for your holiday season–the activities or events that are your most favorite. Pursue those priorities, and let the rest of your expectations go. For instance, you may desire a peaceful family gathering, but does that ever happen for your family? If not, keeping that expectation will only leave you disappointed. Instead, decide that you’ll be happy with a holiday that ticks boxes that are achievable and enjoyable for you. If engaging with a difficult person feels inevitable this season, create that expectation for yourself, but then remind your inner child that they’ll still get to do the fun things you’ve prioritized.

2. Help your body feel calm and safe. When we’re engaging with difficult people or tough situations, sometimes our bodies are the first to warn us that we’re feeling drained or stressed before we consciously realize what’s happening. If you notice your breathing is tight, that your shoulders have become so tense that they’re hanging out with your earlobes, or that a headache is developing, it’s time to take care of your body. Step away from the situation for a moment. Practice some breathing exercises. Stretch or massage the muscles that are holding your stress. Meditation or prayer can also calm your mind and body. Do this as often as you need to!

3. Steer clear of negativity. We all have those members of the family who are constantly gossiping or complaining or criticizing. When you realize you’ve been sucked into a conversation that engages in these negative activities, try to change the subject. Perhaps bringing up cute dogs on TikTok will be all that’s necessary, but it’s also perfectly fine to say something like, “Hey, I totally get why you’re talking about this, but I’m more in the mood for merry conversations. Can we talk about something that makes us happy?” If the negative conversations continue, it’s absolutely reasonable for you to join a different one or to politely leave the gathering.

4. Be the helper. A great way to make sure you avoid negative conversations is to keep yourself busy. At family events, who does all the cooking, the setup, the serving, the cleanup, etc.? If that person isn’t one of the people you need to avoid, volunteer to help them! They’ll greatly appreciate it, you’ll both have a nicer time, and you won’t be as free to get sucked into conversations with or about difficult people.

5. Make a list of “off-limits” topics. You don’t have to share this list with anyone if you don’t feel comfortable. Just take some time to reflect within yourself and determine if there are some subjects you’re simply not comfortable discussing with your family. If/when those topics come up, that’s a great opportunity for you to decide you’re going to clear all the plates, go check on the little kids, take the dog for a walk, or find something else to do that takes you away from that conversation and preserves your health and sanity.

6. Look into the gray rock method. It’s one way of disengaging from a difficult person who refuses to or cannot change. Sometimes, especially around the holidays, it’s almost impossible to completely avoid speaking to the difficult people in your life. If you find that, despite your efforts, you’re trapped in a conversation with someone who can’t or won’t hear your point of view, try this method to get through it.

7. Schedule alone time for yourself. Know your limits. Some people quite literally have a two-hour cutoff for attending family gatherings–once they’ve attended for two hours, they head home. If you’re unable to leave the place where the gathering is being held, there are still ways you can separate yourself and respect your limits. Maybe you go to your room after a certain amount of time. Or maybe you decide you can only attend two family events, not ten. When you know you have a potentially difficult event coming up, schedule some alone time for yourself before the event occurs and use it to give yourself comfort. Reflect on how past years have gone and set limits for yourself that will protect your mental health and keep the holidays fun for you.

8. Schedule time with your friends. We can’t choose our family, but we do get the joy of choosing our friends. Talk to the people you love spending time with and set up some fun activities to do with them. Caroling, building snowmen, movie marathons, shopping for gifts, or simply walking around town with a hot drink can all be lovely ways to make sure you get the feeling of celebrating the holiday without necessarily having to do them with difficult family members.

9. Plan something to look forward to after the holidays are over. Whether it’s because you have so much fun over the winter break that you’re sad when it’s over, or that the holidays are so difficult they leave you exhausted, it’s normal to experience a post-holiday slump. In fact, the post-holiday blues are a real thing. Planning something for late December or January that you can look forward to, may create a small light at the end of the tunnel when you’re caught in the midst of a difficult time, during or after the holidays. Sign up for a class, join a club, plan a trip, save up for a purchase… Whatever it is, make sure it brings you joy.

The Reason for the Season

Always remember, you are free to choose. You are not trapped. Many of us get so lost in the “obligation” part of “family obligations” that we forget how these events got started in the first place. Families are supposed to gather for holidays because they want to, because it gives them an opportunity to connect after a year of doing their own thing, not because it’s rude to say “no.” In fact, if we look back to the Christmas story of Jesus’ birth, it’s a reasonable assumption that God did not intend for it to be celebrated with obligatory gatherings that aren’t much fun for anybody.

This year, make the joy, love, peace, and comfort of the nativity a key part of your #1 in the list above. Practice the above self-care ideas in order to make sure that your holiday is a meaningful one, even if you still choose to participate in a few things that might be difficult. If you’re struggling with the concept that you are meant to enjoy this time of year, not just the difficult people in your life, circle back to #2. Ask God to remind you that He sent His son so that you may have an abundant life. Ask Him to show you what boundaries you can set to maintain a healthier and happier existence through this season. Our Hope Coaches are here to talk as well, if you’re not sure how to begin. We truly hope you find joy this holiday season!

For more on the importance of self-care, watch this personal video story by Karissa with The Rooted Fruit.

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