The holidays offers us a time to be together with family members; a pause in our busy lives to celebrate tradition, share memories and to reconnect.

At least that is what we all hope for.

Unfortunately for many families, the reality of the holidays does not measure up to our idealized expectations. For many, the holidays are a time when tensions flare, old hurts are revisited and buried resentments resurface. Yet it seems we continue, year after year, to hope for something different, something better, something more, well, ideal. Unfortunately, it is this clinging to idealized expectations that often gets us into most trouble.

So, do we cancel all our plans, avoid our families and stay home, huddled under the covers with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a store bought pumpkin pie? Sure, that is one way to avoid being hurt, but you have other options.

Is it possible to participate in family functions without needing weeks of debriefing afterwards?

Yes is the simple answer. But no, it isn’t easy at all. It requires change-not on the part of the others but in your perspective and attitude. If you embrace some of the following ideas, you can shift the holiday experience from unbearable to bearable and maybe, just maybe, have a little fun.

1. Consider your Expectations– Often it is simply expectations that create our disappointment. Let go of wishing this year your mother won’t be sarcastic or your Uncle Ned won’t get blasted on the spiked punch. Often it is our own fantasy that creates our pain. Remember this: Expectations are pre-mediated resentments.

2. Stop comparing your family to a romanticized story book version of life– No one else has a Norman Rockwell family either. No one’s family is “perfect”. No matter your impression of other families at soccer games or in restaurants, every family has their own troubles.

3. Consider whether you know the difference between hope and denial- Hope is when there is some evidence that change is possible and denial is when we hold out for change even when there is absolutely NO evidence that it is going to happen. Consider that what you hope will happen may just be a fantasy.

4. Know your limits, set your boundaries and stick to them– You don’t have to visit for a week and you don’t have to stay at their house (or vice versa). Try a shorter visit at a nearby hotel. Remember when we set boundaries, it doesn’t mean others will like it. It means we are liking ourselves. Boundaries and respect are present in all healthy relationships. While certain people may not respect yours; it doesn’t mean that you stop respecting yourself.

5. Accept that a change within the family will create change in the dynamics- If your family experienced divorce, death, remarriage,  illness, loss of a job or even the birth of a child, know that the delicate balance of your family dynamics will have shifted. The loss or addition of a person or change of circumstance creates a shift in the mood and there is a good chance that things will feel a little unsettled. Rather than focus on the discomfort, notice how the change shifts your own emotional landscape and how that is effecting your own behavior.

6. If you are hosting the holiday, try limiting or eliminating alcohol- A few drinks tends to magnify problems and loosen inhibitions. By eliminating alcohol you may bring down the level of acrimony by at least a few degrees. If you are visiting, stick with the non-alcohol stuff.

Remember you can’t change the behavior of others, but you can change your own.   Consider this holiday an opportunity to adjust your own perspective and to grow emotionally. By taking the focus off of others’ behavior and focusing on your own thoughts and feelings, you may be pleasantly surprised. When we accept that we have NO control over the behavior of others and begin to look inward for our happiness, we just might find it.


© 2014 Donna F. Ferber, LPC, LADC is a psychotherapist in private practice in Farmington, CT since 1986.She is the author of the award winning From Ex-Wife to Exceptional Life: A Woman’s Journey through Divorce now available in Kindle format for $9.99 as well as in paperback.


  1. Cj golden on the 16. Nov, 2014 remarked #

    Donna-that last paragraph says it all-in all parts of life!

  2. Judy Casper on the 06. Jan, 2015 remarked #

    It IS a hard time. Judy

Leave a Reply to Cj golden