This holiday time of year brings out the kid in us, which can be lots of fun. It can also mean that it brings out the Inner Wounded Child Who Never Got What They Wanted From the Holidays in us, which can be painful. Probably most of us have a combination of past disappointments and traumas, mixed with hopeful expectations and idealized visions. Our adult self often gets shoved aside as our Inner Kid maneuvers to finally get what she wants for Christmas.
When only the Kid is in charge, things tend to not go as well. The trick is to let the Kid play as much as possible, while the Adult self is in charge of managing expectations, drawing boundaries, and keeping everyone safe.
Here are some ways to do it
1. Be clear about those expectations.
a. What exactly is important to you about the holidays? Pick apart what comprises that blurry picture in your head — scenarios from the past, images from TV and magazines, emotions, traumas, defense and coping strategies, your own longings, etc. What is truly yours anymore, what was someone else’s? What used to be true but really isn’t anymore, if you were honest with yourself? What exactly do you want?
b. What feelings are you trying to re-capture? Are you wanting everyone else (especially spouse and kids) to have those same feelings too? Can they have different feelings or expectations or wants – or would that mean that you’ve failed or the holidays were a disappointment?
c. What are you expecting to get from other people? Not just in terms of actual gifts, but participation, buy-in, support, approval, love, thoughtfulness, etc. etc.
d. Have those people ever delivered on those things? If not – please let them off the hook, and let go of any expectation that they will deliver on them this year, or ever. Even if they should, even if you deserve it, even if whatever. No.
2. Once you’re clear about what is important to you, check in with other relevant family members about what’s important to them.
a. Be careful about assumptions and hidden expectations – really ask them what is important and sit on your hands if it’s not what you thought it was or want it to be.
b. When you know, and you’ve shared with them what’s important to you, then see about making that happen, even if you have plans with other people that are about other things. If what your spouse and kids love is a Christmas Eve reading of “The Night Before Christmas” with cocoa and a fire, then do that, even if you’re at your in-laws house and Uncle Eddie is out in the backyard shooting bottles off the fence.
c. Be open to morphing traditions into new ones as everyone evolves, so keep checking in about what’s important. Kids may be less interested in trimming the tree with you as Christmas music plays in the background, but they might find volunteering at a homeless shelter surprisingly rewarding.
3. Reclaim your Inner Adult.
a. Back when my family dynamics were a lot more volatile, I used to bring my graduate school textbooks home with me for the holidays – not because I was going to study, but because they helped remind me that I was, in fact, an intelligent adult, and not the reactive, defensive, childish nitwit I felt myself immediately turn into when That Person said That Thing in That Tone of Voice, despite my years of therapy. Have with you something that reminds you of your competence and capacity and use it as your talisman.
b. Work out a head of time with a friend that knows and loves you that you can call each other for a simple reminder – “How old am I again?” or, “What’s great about me? I can’t remember…” and they’ll tell you.
4. Get out.
a. Go for walks, volunteer to walk the dog, do the grocery shopping. Get outside. Get away.
5. Do Profanity Therapy. A personal favorite. Best done alone in a car because they are more soundproof, and you don’t want to scare the dog or neighbors, or get arrested.
a. When you’ve volunteered to get that gallon of milk, find a spot in a remote area of a parking lot, or a lonely road, and scream at the top of your lungs every awful thing that is exploding in your head. Say out loud what you would have said to That Person if you didn’t care what the consequences would be. Let loose. Be free. Be totally terrible.
b. Actually, as you’re yelling and screaming, make it worse. Take it to the extreme and beyond. This has the effect of either becoming so ridiculous that you end up laughing hysterically, or it gets to the bottom of what is really bugging you about the situation – both of which are helpful.
c. Do EFT tapping while you’re doing it, to really move the energy of it all.
6. Play Dysfunctional Family Bingo. I had a client first tell me about it, and it changed her whole experience of the holidays. I looked it up, and it’s really a Thing. Martha Beck talked about it in a blog back in 2011 . Here’s another link for it from the Wall Street Journal, along with some other really good ideas about getting through the holidays.
7. If you are going into a situation with predictable landmines (and you wouldn’t be feeling stressed and anxious about it if you weren’t), think ahead of time about how you want to respond differently this time to what you’re expecting to encounter.
a. People usually say seemingly hurtful, appalling, or enraging things because either they have issues with those things they haven’t dealt with yet, or they’re scared for you – and so there is an emotional charge around them that leaks out in these unhelpful ways.
b. This means that what they are saying is not about you. It’s about them.
c. So you can address this underlying fact in a number of ways –
i. Be completely neutral: “Hmm. Interesting.”
ii. Acknowledge the caring that actually does underpin it: “I know this is your way of saying, “I care about you.” This is magic, because it’s almost always true.
iii. Draw a line. “I know this is a big thing for you, but I’m done talking about it.” And mean it. Change the subject, respond using one of the above options, or leave the room if they bring it up again.
8. When all else fails, as it will, be compassionate with yourself. It’s not going to go perfectly. You’ll fall into old patterns despite your best efforts, but that’s okay.
a. A friend once told me, after I was beating myself up for having fallen into my old destructive survival strategies during a visit home, “It’s not unreasonable to want anesthesia when you’re about to go under the emotional knife.” I’m obviously not advocating you do anything destructive. I’m just saying that if it’s been one your survival strategies, give yourself a break if you give up and use it.
b. Look for things during the holidays that go well or feel good. They might be tiny or seemingly insignificant, but they all count, and they can add up to your interpreting the whole experience as being better than you feared it might be.
9. Remember that this holiday season too, will pass. Think about what you might want to do differently next year to make it more your own.