There is a song that says of Christmas, "It's the most wonderful time of the year!" But for many, it's the most painful time of the year as family dysfunction is magnified by unrealistic expectations, followed by unfair judgments, result in compounding guilt and shame. When you are prepared for problems you anticipate, you can make a plan to avoid it.
Find a way or find an excuse.
Be responsible or be a victim.
Either way, it's your choice.
Know what you want first, then create a plan how you want the time with family to end. Some people say they feel obligated to attend a family gathering but hate the idea of entering an unsafe environment. Some people fear abuse of the past being repeated in the present and don't know how to avoid it. Others know they have a choice but are compelled to attend because they "hope" this year will be different from the past.
There's an old saying that "misery loves company," and it's so true when it comes to dysfunctional holiday gatherings. Many families like to "catch up" on the judgements they were not able to pour on another family member all the rest of the year. Maybe they heard rumors from another family member, parent, or siblings. They judge the other's behaviors and shame them in front of the rest of the family. They bring up past hurts and demand restitution. They use the time of gathering as a time to clear the air instead of a time to celebrate each other.
When my clients tell me they have fear, anxiety, and depression because of the family gathering, I advise them to have a plan before they get the invite to dinner. Here are a couple examples how to set boundaries to avoid the holiday tradition of dysfunction:
It's okay to say, "No, thank you," when a family member invites you to their home if you believe your time there will be negative. If you are asked why you can't attend, add the next line.
It's okay to say, "I have other plans," and not explain what those plans are, even if they are to stay at home with a TV dinner and watch football. Often, we over explain and then it becomes an argument as they attempt to manipulate and guilt us into attending. Stay calm and just repeat yourself, then say you have to go. Hang up if they continue to insist.
It's okay to say, "Thank you, yes. I'll be there, but I have to leave by 2:00." By setting a limit to the time you are exposed to others helps you have an escape plan. You can stay longer if the time is pleasant, but you can leave when it's not.
It's okay to ask if a family member who you have difficulty with will be there. If they are, offer an alternative day to get with the host (Christmas Day versus Christmas Eve works really well). If they want a family photo with everyone there, offer to come for the photo, but you won't stay beyond that. If the offensive person attempts to engage you, give your apologies to the host and leave. Don't stay and engage in conflict that someone else is starting. Walk away.
What you give of yourself during the holidays is determined by you. You can give of your time, money, and love, and have no expectation of others to give to you. By realizing that what you give is a unconditional gift, you free yourself from needing anything in return. When you give with an expectation to receive something, a gift, love, or admiration, you are giving conditionally and will be hurt when your expectations are not met.
Determine what you will give, then give it freely. Only you determine the value of the gift. If you want to give a small gift or large one, give it freely. If you want to give a couple hours of your time or the whole day, give it freely. If you want to give love, then give it without expectation that you will receive anything back. Live your life in control of your choices, especially during the holidays, when you have the right to choose what you will and won't give...but whatever you give, give it freely. And always remember, when you change, everything changes.
“When you get into a tight place and everything goes against you, till it seems you cannot hold on a minute longer, never give up then, for that is just the place and time the tide will turn.”
Harriet Beecher Stowe