For many, the winter holidays bring with them snowy weather, familiar tunes, and a host of seasonal events and get-togethers. While this can be a joyful time of togetherness, many find it to be a very stressful time of the year. This can be especially true for LGBTQ individuals. Fear not! We are bringing you a three-part Holiday Survival Guide, chock full of tips and strategies to help you honor your needs, minimize stress, and find enjoyment this holiday season.
This three part series will look at navigating family time, beating winter blues & stress, and getting connected in the community. Stay tuned!
Holiday Survival Guide Part 1: Navigating Family Time
Boundaries, Boundaries, Boundaries!
Before spending time with family this season, it can be helpful to consider your boundaries, priorities, and personal needs and come up with a plan. It is very easy to fall back into old family patterns as soon as you walk in the door, so mindfully thinking through the following can be extraordinarily helpful. Many find that asking a therapist for help in this process allows them to feel more prepared and less anxious.
- Time: Be mindful about how much time you plan to spend with your family; if you anticipate time together being stressful or triggering, quality over quantity might be a good rule of thumb. Planning for “time-outs” from family can be a great strategy as well. Is it possible to go for a walk or take a drive? Can you steal your favorite cousin away for a trip to the movies? If you are visiting family out of town, is it an option to stay at a hotel instead of a family member’s house? Do you need to consider renting a car?
- Traditions: Ask yourself why you are planning to engage in certain activities. Many family traditions feel automatic and compulsory, but you do, in fact, have a choice about participating or not participating. If the rest of the family spends the morning of Thanksgiving or Christmas Eve at Great Aunt Dot’s house while she regales the family with stories you find offensive and upsetting, you have a choice about your level of participation. Find your wiggle room and comfort level. Is it possible to only go for part of the time or not at all? Can you come before or after certain activities? Can you enlist the support of an allied family member or friend to be extra support?
- Expectations: There is a reason Norman Rockwell’s pictures of a holiday dinner or family scene are paintings. They are not reality for the majority of families. Focusing too much on how things “should” or “could” be leads to a lot of stress, hurt feelings, and distress. Accepting who the members of your family are in reality can help curb mismatched expectations and reality and allow you to be truly present for the things and people that do bring you joy around the holidays. It can be useful to set two or three personal priorities or intentions, such as spending time with a sibling, playing with your little cousin, and letting Grandma know she is doing a great job with dinner (and don’t forget enjoying your favorite holiday treat!). It’s ok for things not to be perfect.
- Behaviors of Others: Take some time to consider what the difference between unsafe and uncomfortable is for you personally; talking with your therapist about this can be extremely helpful. Communicate your boundaries around other’s behavior directly (and in advance if possible), perhaps through a phone call or email to one or two family members. Develop a plan for what you will do if these boundaries are broken. For example:
- I will not accept my family referring to my long-time partner as my “friend,” I will gently correct those who use this term.
- I will not participate in conversations that are sexist/homophobic/racist in nature. I will assert my boundary by asking that the subject be changed, and if need be, excuse myself from the room.
- I will remind myself that it may take my family members some time to consistently use my preferred pronouns, I will offer those who may be having trouble with this some gentle reminders and affirm my identity for myself.
- Don’t Defend: When discussing or asserting boundaries and needs, remind yourself that you do not need to defend or explain yourself to others; it is perfectly acceptable to simply ask to be respected in your decision making.
Have a plan in place for self care during your time with family!
- Take time to regularly affirm your identity and self-worth. It is helpful to go into holiday situations with some affirming answers to those negative voices that can crop up in family situations.
- Get Outside Support. Look into local AA meetings, gyms, or other external support if you will be traveling and could benefit from maintaining these aspects of your regular self-care routine
- Come prepared. Bring with you things that might help you cope with difficult times, such as a journal, meditation tape, or an affirming letter from a loved one.
- Know your allies. Know in advance which friends or members of your social support network will be available to you if you need to reach out.
- Take Time. Give yourself “breaks” from family time by taking walks, spending some quiet time alone, planning a brief outing without everyone else, etc.
- Give yourself permission to attend to your needs and boundaries!
If you are partnered and spending time with family together, discuss in advance what will make each of you most comfortable with regard to sleeping arrangements, expressing affection, and navigating tricky conversations. Confirm sleeping arrangements with your family before you arrive.
If you plan to come out to family members during the holidays, it is extra important to have made plans in advance regarding your personal boundaries, self care needs, availability of affirming social support, and a back-up plan. Additionally…
- Remember that the stress of the holidays may cause family members to react differently then they would under less stressful conditions; their reaction may not be entirely because of what you have shared about your identity.
- Remind yourself that family members may need time to acknowledge, accept, and affirm your identity; coming out is a continuous process.
- Let your family members attend to and work on their own thoughts, feelings, and judgments as long as they are kind to you and things do not become unsafe.
Have a Back Up Plan.
If during the visit things become too difficult have a back-up plan about how you will make an exit and what you will do. This could include going for a walk or running a last minute errand, all the way up to deciding to spend the rest of the holiday elsewhere, perhaps with chosen family or friends or volunteering with those in need.
Lindsay Doyle, PsyD is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist at IntraSpectrum Counseling. Dr Doyle specializes in supporting those who have endured trauma or come from “chaotic backgrounds,” as well as those who are navigating issues of identity development, bereavement & loss, and/or difficulties with relationships, anxiety, or depression. She is dedicated to providing affirming services to Chicago’s LGBTQIA community.