Holiday Cheer?

Dr. Sue Gill offers both a reflection and some helpful suggestions on recognizing and addressing family holiday stressors.

Ahh…the holidays. Such a wonderful part of the year. A time to connect with family, sing carols around the piano, and eat meals lovingly prepared to perfection. It’s the chance for relaxing travel filled with cheer and the excitement of seeing everybody again.

Oh wait, that may only happen in the movies. In real life, therapists are open extra hours to accommodate the stress that people carry through the holidays. For some people, this is a time for reminders of unresolved issues with family that have been simmering all year, painful memories from contentious holidays of the past, and the loneliness that comes if family members are no longer present in our lives.

With another holiday season upon us, are you excited? Anxious? Happy? Sad? Some mixture of all of the above?

1. Stop stressing yourself out over expectations that you have put on yourself. I really find that much of holiday stress lies in this category. Examples are skipping sleep to bake all of the cookies that you have to bake, spending more money than you should to ensure that everybody is happy, or running yourself ragged to get the house perfect for visitors. 

Of course, straight people have plenty of experiences with stress and sadness during the holidays. However, queer folks often have all of the “regular” holiday stresses in addition to some that are unique to our lives.

I regularly witness beautiful resilience among members of the LGBTQ community. I especially love our ability to create a family during times when the families we grew up with fall short. I think this works remarkably well most of the year. However, if issues with family are unresolved, they often come to a head over the holidays. For example, I work with a lot of transgender people who accept themselves, have close friendships, and may even have immediate family who are trying to be accepting. However, they might get some resistance from family unless they agree to go to an extended family gathering presenting in their gender assigned at birth.

2. Have a clear sense of what things are your own responsibility and what really lies in the hands of others. You are not responsible for others’ happiness, opinions, or acceptance of how you live your life. You are responsible for your own happiness, and to live your life in a way that is consistent with your values.

I find it heartbreaking to see how hard most people work to maintain family connections, only to have them severely challenged during family gatherings. For many years, my family knew that I was queer and did some kind of mental gymnastics to try and be accepting, but couldn’t pull it off when it came recognizing my partner as my partner. It took years for them to realize that they needed to find a way to accept my partner as part of their lives if they wanted me in their lives.

I know that many of you have decided that it is easier to cut off contact with your family and focus on building your family of choice. I also know that many, many of you have been patient with your family, worked through many painful months or years to come to an understanding, and now have fulfilling relationships with the family you grew up with.

When possible, I believe that it’s best to try to work things out with family. I do understand that this is not possible for everybody. Some families are not willing to budge even a bit in their beliefs. Other families are so dysfunctional in other ways that it can be hard to find a point of positive connection. However, most families (especially individuals within a family) have some room to change, become more understanding, and accept our chosen family. This can take a lot of patience. Try to remember that it took most of us years to accept ourselves, and we need to give our families the same consideration.

3. Manage the expectations you have of others.

While it’s always important to remain patient and hopeful, don’t set yourself up for disappointment by hoping that things will be radically different this year.

It is also important to be careful with your assumptions about how family members may react. For years, my partner and I just never bothered to go to some extended family gatherings because I assumed that we would be unwelcome as a gay couple. Recently we took a deep breath and went to a large family gathering. I was deeply moved when all of my aunts welcomed my partner openly. I almost cried when my 77-year-old Evangelical Christian aunt stood next to her Mitt Romney for President sign and hugged me. She whispered in my ear, “I am so glad that you brought Sheri. She is a real gem.” “Yes,” I thought, “Sheri is a gem. You are too, you elderly Evangelical, Republican aunt. You are too.”

4. Figure out what factors negatively impact holiday visits and adjust accordingly.

For example, if everything is nice during family get-togethers until people have a bit too much to drink, then arrive early and leave before that third round of drinks. Or if the first two days of a visit are fun, but you’re ready to kill everybody days three to five, then by all means book those return tickets for early on day three.

As this holiday season approaches, I hope that you can find ways to connect with your loved ones. I hope that you can be brave but patient with those who don’t fully know you or accept you. I hope that you can give your family a chance to accept you, and allow for the possibility that some who have made mistakes in the past might change. n

Sue and her partner Sheri have lived in Madison since 2000. They keep busy with their two dogs, Frankie and Maslow. Sue is a psychologist in private practice and can be found online at www.madisontherapy.com.