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A Quick Holiday Survival Guide for Connecting with Family without Disconnecting from Ourselves

Updated: Jun 22



For many of us, the holiday season is rife with compulsory contact with our families of origin. Whether you consider the events of the holidays to be opportunities or landmines, it seems that no one is immune to some sort of tension, discomfort, confusion, or conflict. What follows is a set of quickly but carefully curated guidelines for understanding these undesirable emotions, developing greater compassion for the self and others, and illuminating a pathway to connection that does not require us to lose ourselves. (For more in-depth information on the theory behind these guidelines, check out The Bowen Center for the Study of the Family)


First, let’s dispel the idea that families should be capable of getting along better during a holiday than they do on any other day of the year. If anything, holiday interactions, with all of their associated pressures, are more like a microcosm (e.g., mini, concentrated version of) what typically occurs between the people involved. Given that, let’s consider our first survival tip:


1) Leave the pressure to the Instant Pot. Just plan for everyone to be their typical selves. Any changes that we desire within our families need to be introduced and facilitated throughout the year and shouldn’t be expected to spontaneously occur around a tree or a set of candles. (Check out Glennon Doyle’s We Can Do Hard Things podcast, episode Your Holiday Pep Talk: “We ask no questions of this day.”)


Next, we should take a moment to honor our personal journeys toward growth, mental health, and wellness. In order to craft a more confident and secure identity, it is common practice for us to push away from our families, especially if we’ve identified those systems as unhealthy or somehow problematic. In fact, this is actually a typical developmental milestone within any family. Family systems therapists call it “differentiation of self.”


When we stop conforming to the “group think” and acceptable norms within the culture of our families, we often believe that we need to aggressively disagree and distance ourselves as a method of creating an identity that is just our own (think: teenage rebellion). If this developmental milestone goes reasonably well, the dust eventually settles and we find ourselves happily reintegrating with our families as the new, whole, mature, and stable adults that we have become. For many of us, though, this stage doesn’t unfold quite so successfully. For various reasons, we might feel protective of the adult identities that we have crafted outside of our family systems. Some have been rejected for differentiating and some are simply afraid of backsliding and betraying themselves. The next tip might be “unpopular” but hear us out!


2) Look in the mirror before pointing a finger. Ask yourself whether the tension is happening inside of you rather than between yourself and others. During the process of differentiation, it is common for us to fall into two opposite pitfalls. Sometimes, we can backslide by joining with the family’s thoughts, opinions, and mannerisms in a way that leaves us feeling passive and less defined. Other times, we can behave defensively, pushy, and polarizing as a way to demonstrate our separateness from those around us. So, if your goal is differentiation, be calmly, unapologetically you. There aren’t any yearbook awards for family cheerleader or family bully.


Finally, let’s take a hard look at how families tend to handle change. They don’t. All systems much prefer homeostasis, whether it’s the traditions, the foods, and even the stereotyped roles that people seem to play over and over. This is all well and good unless the status quo is hurtful, harmful, or inappropriate. Still, rather than expect others to spontaneously change, despite the dysfunction, let’s think about taking ownership in spearheading that process ourselves.


3) Create a short-term and a long-term plan. Since the holiday season is already upon us, let’s first look at the here-and-now. If family togetherness equates to being subjected to degrading, hostile, or damaging behavior, consider skipping it (seriously). If instead the holidays feel like an unrelenting slog, get creative and generate some boundaries. Spend less time, avoid specific topics, and gravitate toward the more likeminded individuals in the bunch. After the new year, sit down with a pen and paper and record the changes that you would like to see. Plan a discussion, think about what it would take to improve certain dynamics, address conflicts head on, or plan to finally give yourself permission to let problematic people go. Timing is important, so think about the long-term changes outside of the holiday “rush.”


Happy holidays to the members of our wonderful community. We believe that a goal worth striving for is to grow comfortable enough with our mature and enlightened selves that we can reasonably maintain it wherever we are, even with our families. We hope that the survival tips above can brighten (and lighten) this time. Here’s to a better new year (and new you).


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