Feeling a bit ‘Ho Ho Ho Oh Noooo?’ again this Christmas?

I spend the weeks in the lead up to Christmas working with some really decent and beautiful people who are triggered into their worst states all year because of this holy holiday.

They say:

  • I must be the only person in the world who doesn’t have a warm and welcoming family to spend Christmas with.
  • Why does the marketing have to start months in advance, all it does is increase my dread!
  • I know it’s only one day but for me it’s a month of misery.
  • I know I should stop being such a grinch even though every family occasion I attend ends up in a passive-aggressive or outright brawl that leaves me reeling for days.
  • Maybe there is something fundamentally wrong with me.

You are not alone

Next year I will seriously consider running ‘I Hate Christmas’ groups just so that these lovely people can see that no in fact they are not the odd ones out.  Even people from seemingly ‘nice’ families can spend a long time dreading the C-Day.

Just know that many families are challenging to say the least.  Think about these statistics (then I promise we will get to the good bit):

  • More than 50% of marriages turn into divorces, bringing with it step-families, envies and resentments;
  • More than 1 million Australians have experienced actual physical violence from a domestic partner (and this worsens on ‘celebrations’ like Christmas);
  • 1 in 25 adults has been estranged from family members for an average time of 9 years;
  • And of course, the unmentionable that I feel needs a lot more mentioning: incest, in terms of sexual abuse of a child by a family member is thought to have happened to 20% of females and 10-15% of males.

Add in the fact that alcoholism is common as mud in Australia.

Now stir, add a hot sweaty day with unrealistic expectations, and I ask you, could it possibly be true that everyone except you is having a fabulous Chrissie day with their textbook families?

Of course not, and it’s irritating that marketing persists in trying to sell us this hurtful fairytale, and that social media only amplifies that.

So, how about a new approach?  You can do it the usual way: fingers in ears, body braced for the blows.  Or you can sit down and make a conscious effort to take back your end-of-year time (yes it does belong to you).

In other words, do your best to find a happier December.  That probably won’t mean everyone involved living happily ever after, but it will likely be happier.

Let’s do it!

  1. Harm minimisation

There literally is no law that states you must spend parts of December every year with certain people.  Literally none.  If you don’t, people might be disappointed.  They might talk about you.  Guess what, they probably do anyway!  Don sunglasses and enjoy the infamy.  So:

  • Go on a holiday across that time period;
  • Spend the day with other friends who are avoiding the ticking nuclear bombs of their family ‘celebrations’;
  • Go where you feel genuinely welcomed and well-treated;
  • The good old soup kitchen volunteering really does work. Helping other people is almost guaranteed to help you to feel better; unlike some other options available to you that day;
  • Do whatever you damn well please! Yes, what about that?  Go to the beach, have a bush walk, read a book.  Literally enjoy yourself in all your glory.
  1. But do allow yourself to feel the pain

Neuroscientists tell us that we are wired to connect, just like any other mammal.  Exclusion, especially from family, can literally cause physical pain, and even maps on to the part of the brain that feels physical pain.  The same happens with being present with people who are supposed to love you yet behave hurtfully.

So be a little understanding with yourself.  If a good friend felt upset in this way, what kind of kindness might you show them?  See if you can do yourself the same favour.  Even if you have a great day planned there is no need to pretend that you are emotionally invincible.

Try a little tenderness and allow that sore part to exist right next to the good feelings too.  All feelings are welcome today – and every day.

  1. Lower your expectations

People turn up year after year to family celebrations with high hopes that this will be the year that people stay sober, treat them well, exhibit fairness, and basically behave in kind and ethical ways. Hah.

You don’t back a race horse based on how you hope it will perform.  We know that historical behaviour, not promises, will give us the best indication of what to expect next time.

If you plan to attend your family Christmas, go armed with a list of how you can expect each person present to behave (as opposed to how they should behave).  You know them well enough by now to do this.  Turn it into a fun game with a supportive person.  See who can be the most accurate and receive a point for each prediction on the list as it comes true.

Dad got drunk, mum fawned over one adult child and insulted another, an uncle made creepy passes at the teenagers, and you spent all day in the kitchen desperately trying to salvage the party.  See you were right!

When your expectations are unrealistic you are bound to be seriously disappointed.  On the other hand, when you accurately predict behaviour, you are more likely to be able to take it in your stride and move on.

  1. Limits on everything

If you attend, limit everything.  The time you spend there: guest appearances are recommended.  Throw yourself into that hour, do your thing and then get out before there is time for any rubbish to start.

Limit conversation topics that will be discussed.  Be armed with ‘that’s not what I talk about on Christmas day, now what did Santa bring you?’ as an answer to every invasive question. If someone wants to resolve something tell them to do it another day.

Limit physical contact. No hugs for people you do not want to hug. Limit gift giving:  arrange in advance.  But while you are there, be a wheel on the bus, not a passenger.

  1. Try out the Devil’s advocate on yourself

Does all this salvaging Christmas for yourself sound impossible? Go on then, attend as you normally do. I urge you!  Do everything as per the old routine.  Make the calls, do the cooking, buy the presents, take the insults, worry a lot.  And then come home, collapse and waste hours or days sifting through the wreckage.

Alternatively, you could…

  1. Start new traditions.

What part of Christmas do you actually connect with and value?

  • The lights? Go on tours or make a great display to make others feel happy;
  • Christian aspects? Go to church, help someone needy, connect with your higher power in your way throughout the season;
  • Consumerism? Buy stuff for kids who will not get gifts or for people you feel grateful towards;
  • Nothing much at all about it? Enjoy an extra day off work or have a fun day with people or animals you like.

My Christmas wish for you is that you can look back on this season with a fondness for at least part of the new path you have created.

May you have, not a merry Christmas, no, but one that you value and feel great about despite the challenges previous years may have held.  Wishing you much happiness-and peace!

Dr Alanda Thompson is a Clinical Psychologist (PhD) with 30 years of experience.  She thrives on helping people live their best lives despite or even because they come from dysfunctional family systems.