The holidays can be such a strange time, and they can be rather polarizing. When it comes to the holidays, it seems that most people either love them or hate them.
For some, spending the holidays with family can be excruciating. For others, they experience pain spending the holidays without their family or certain family members. In today’s post we’re talking about how to cope when you’re spending the holidays apart from your estranged family.
Why the Holidays are Stressful
Whatever the reason an individual becomes estranged from members of their family, it’s not hard to imagine how that experience might be stressful. But what is it about the holidays in particular that seems to be extra stressful? Why are the holidays more painful than other times of the year?
Particularly in Western culture, there aren’t a whole lot of rituals that we still abide by. Birthdays, weddings, funerals, and holidays are some of the few lingering rituals we stick to.
Good ol’ Merriam-Webster defines ritual as:
a: ritual observance. Specifically : a system of rites
b: a ceremonial act or action
c: an act or series of acts regularly repeated in a set precise manner
The last part of the definition stands out to me in particular: “an act or series of acts regularly repeated in a set precise manner.” Isn’t that what we expect during the holidays? Things are always supposed to be just the way we remembered.
The problem is, life happens and things change. Our rituals have to adapt to the changes that happen in our lives. Sometimes this is a joyful experience, such as when a new baby gets added to the family. At other times, changes to our rituals are not welcome.
When we’re used to doing things a certain way, any shifts away from our norm seem especially highlighted to us. When our holiday ritual used to involve family time and now we’re estranged from family, the missing family members inevitably stand out to us like a sore thumb. This forces us to confront whatever emotions we might experience affiliated with that loss face-to-face.
Spending the Holidays Without Family
Some of you are estranged from family by choice. Others of you would give anything to see your family, but you are the one who’s been estranged. Either way, it can be excruciating to experience the holidays without family.
For many of my clients in this position, the default response can be to try to just white-knuckle it through the holidays. The internal thought process can sound like, The holidays are going to suck, so I just need to hang on and wait until it’s over!
Though it may be true that the holidays will be quite painful for you, I see this perspective as rather disempowering. You’re already experiencing the pain that comes with being estranged from family. Now you’re doomed to simply suffer year after year whenever the holidays and other key anniversaries roll around?
Instead, I propose a change of plans. There is a two-part process to this plan:
- Create space to grieve. It may be necessary to allow yourself to experience the painful emotions that come with the holidays, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do it on your own terms. If you go into the holiday season with space carved out to experience your emotions, you may be surprised by how much you are opened up to more positive experiences.
- Create space for new rituals. Sometimes we get so stuck on the idea that our usual ritual has been disrupted, that we don’t realize that we can rewrite the script. There is an opportunity today to start new rituals to bring with you in the years to come.
Breaking Family Holiday Traditions
This two-part plan may be easier said than done, but that tends to be true about most things that are worth doing in life.
To help you with the first step of creating space to experience painful emotions, you may find it helpful to read my earlier post about Dealing with Holiday Stress.
Once we’ve allowed ourselves space to experience the pain and loss affiliated with the holidays, we have the freedom to choose into new rituals. It may feel clunky and awkward at first. It requires a far more active process, because now we have to creatively come up with a new plan rather than simply fall into a default ritual.
My suggestion is to pick just one or two new rituals per year to focus on. This is usually how people initiate new rituals anyway – something happens one year that’s different from the norm, people enjoy it, and we incorporate it into the routine. Here are some questions to help you identify one or two items that you can build into your new holiday routine this year:
- Who do you want to spend your holidays with who will surround you with love and safety?
- Is there a location you’ve wanted to visit that you haven’t had the chance to visit yet?
- Is there an activity or restaurant you might try that you haven’t participated in before?
- Is there anything about how to arrange your home that you might like to do differently?
Most importantly, I hope you ask yourself: what is it that I’m needing at this time? If you start by identifying your needs, you can measure your answers to these questions against your needs. Maybe you need to be surrounded by a very small group of friends who care for you. Going to a large communal meal may not be an activity that helps meet that need. Maybe you feel most cared for when you’re surrounded by tons of people. Then that big meal may fit the bill for you!
If you have someone you trust in your life, you can enlist their help to bounce some of these ideas off of to see if they might be willing to support you in building these new rituals together.
The goal here isn’t to pretend you aren’t experiencing painful feelings by covering them up with something “happy.” Instead, the hope is that you can hold the tension that lives between what is painful and what is joyful, rather than completely giving in to the pain and feeling hopeless. Over time, these practices can help you experience joy even while you carry your pain with you.
You may also like my video where I discuss these tools for how to cope if you’re spending the holidays without your estranged family:
As always, I’d like to be clear that this blog post isn’t intended as professional counseling or clinical advice. If you need support, please consider speaking to a professional to be evaluated.
Dr. Marie Fang is a licensed psychologist offering therapy and counseling services to individuals in the Silicon Valley. Her office is located in central San Jose. She specializes in anxiety counseling, identity counseling, and faith counseling. Learn more about Dr. Marie Fang’s Counseling Services.