While you may be able to sit out other holidays, Christmas is generally the one where you don’t have much choice but to participate: Better to just go and shut everyone up, rather than deal with the monsoon of shit you’d catch if you didn’t. While your ideal Christmas day may be just to get drunk on eggnog as you quote along with Die Hard, that likely isn’t going to happen, so here’s a guide to getting through all those disparate emotions you’ll experience this holiday, especially if you haven’t been home in a while.
How to Prepare
“The most important conversation you’re going to have is going to be the one you have with yourself,” says Ronald B. Cohen, a family therapist at Family Focused Solutions. By that, he means that as you’re preparing to head home, you’re going to have to figure out what you should expect to get out of the trip and how you’re going to react to certain situations.
What’s your goal when visiting home? If it’s just to get through the day, then you’re going to want plan which people and topics of conversation to avoid. “If you’re heading home and you have a contentious relationship with someone, it’s worth thinking ahead of time how you’re not going to get into conflict,” says Monica McGoldrick, author of You Can Go Home Again: Reconnecting With Your Family and the director of The Multicultural Family Institute. For example, McGoldrick says if you’ve got a disapproving father who knows, and will try to activate, your triggers, you’ll want to get yourself to a place where you see those triggers coming so you won’t allow yourself to take the bait. “You have to really work on getting to a place where you’re not gettable,” she says.
If you’re heading home with some sort of score to settle or axe to grind, Cohen warns, “That’s going to be a disaster.” So if you want to prove to your family that you’re not the same loser who left four years ago, know that you’re running the risk of alienating those people who are happy to see you and you’re probably not going to get any of your points across in such a crowded and emotionally charged setting. Cohen says that no one really feels good in the long run about a family conflict, and if saying something to settle a score is that important to you, you’re going to want to find another occasion to do it.
On the other end of the spectrum, if you’re looking forward to the trip home and you expect things to go perfectly in a Norman Rockwell painting kind of way, Cohen suggests trying to acknowledge any issues that may arise, and to not over-romanticize things and possibly set yourself up for failure. “Families rarely live up to our expectations,” he says.
No matter how much you psych yourself up for the days ahead though, know that your own brain may not comply with your plans, as familiar environments may trigger memories you forgot that you had. Psychology professor and memory expert Steve Joordens explains, “For any kind of stimulus that was in your environment for a while and then disappears, when you re-encounter that stimulus later, you’re often brought back very powerfully to the previous situation.” So if you drive past your old elementary school or head into the basement of your childhood home, just know that you may have to roll with unexpected feelings.
Once You’ve Arrived
When you arrive, Cohen recommends trying to go into things with an open mind. While still being aware of family fault lines, Cohen says that people can surprise you — just as you’ve been away for a few years and changed as a person, maybe they have too, so try not to assume the worst.
Cohen also says that it’s very hard for people to see their own part in things, especially when it comes to disagreements within a family. He says it may benefit you to try to see things from other people’s perspectives. So for example, if your dad has always been hard on you, try to understand how he grew up and how he sees the world.
Cohen also points out that oftentimes what we dislike in others is what we struggle with ourselves. Maybe it’s dad’s pride or mom’s oversensitivity, but we often inherit our own personal defects from our family members, and then, on some level, we dislike how their behavior reminds us of ourselves. Try to keep this in mind over the holiday and do what you can to understand where someone else is coming from.
How to React to a Difficult Subject
While keeping that open mind, you’ll still want to lean on those that you’re closest to and who understand you the most. As for those more troubling people in the room, it may benefit you to be a bit superficial, especially around the dinner table. If they bring up a sore topic, McGoldrick says that you can try to deflect things with light humor and hopefully that will diffuse the situation. Steer clear of sarcasm, though — that’ll just escalate things.
If mom compares you to your more successful brother, try saying something like, “I know I haven’t done as well as John, but I know you love me anyway, mom.” While it may turn your stomach to do so, no matter how hard someone tries to trigger you, you’re still responsible for how you react to it.
If You’ve Got to Say Something
There’s no need to be a doormat, though — if someone persists on pushing your buttons, you don’t have to take it forever. One thing that McGoldrick says is especially hard to put up with is when someone is attacking or degrading another person, like a sibling or a spouse. “It’s easier to ignore insults against us than it is to tolerate it happening to others,” she says.
Now, at the dinner table, you really should restrain yourself, as a verbal conflict in a crowd is just going to ruin things for everyone. McGoldrick says that a good “rule” to follow when dealing with family squabbles is to “not say anything mean to anyone in front of any other person in the family.”
Instead, after dinner or perhaps the next morning is the time to address this sort of thing. Do it in private, letting them know that you’re not going to tolerate this treatment and that you may not be able to come home for Christmas anymore if it persists. While you want to avoid conflict and maintain your family relationships, you can’t do that at the expense of what you feel is right.
Recognize Your Own Patterns
During the entire trip, you’ll want to be aware of when you’re falling into old patterns, as we often do when seeing family members. One of those patterns is conflict: Cohen explains that in a kind of perverse way, some people know that they can act out with their family and that the consequences will be relatively small, whereas if they’re frustrated at work, they usually can’t tell their boss to go fuck off. This is why it’s important to acknowledge what’s going on in your life during this whole thing — it’s not cool to use your family to vent your frustrations over your own personal shit.
It’s also important to recognize if you’re still seeking the approval of your loved ones or if you have something to prove to them. There’s nothing wrong with being proud of your accomplishments, but if you’re determined to return home as the conquering hero and rub it in everyone’s face, Cohen says that it likely won’t go well, and that you may do further damage to your family connections.
Another pattern that you’re likely to fall into is that of a child. Cohen says, “There’s a famous saying, about how ‘if you think you’re mature, spend a weekend with your mother,’ and the idea is that you’ll inevitably revert back to those childhood behaviors.” While this may seem harmless, it’s still important to recognize that you’re doing it, especially if you’re starting to think about moving back to the neighborhood.
Even If Things Go Well, Remain Realistic
Maybe you left home for the big city a few years back and now, as you’ve gotten a bit older, you’re thinking that suburban living wasn’t so bad. Perhaps you’re moving onto a new phase in life, be it marriage or parenthood or a change in career goals, and you’re seriously considering moving back to your old area and returning to the fold. While it may be nice to have such a positive view of your family and your roots, you’ll want to do a lot of soul-searching before you make this kind of decision.
It may be wise, for example, to talk to people that you’re close with back home to find out what you might expect when returning to the fray. For one, you might find yourself back in the the family rumor mill, which McGoldrick warns can be very toxic. Being distant, sometimes you can avoid the family dirt, but once you’re back, it can be very tempting to indulge in the gossip. Instead, McGoldrick suggests that if you start to get drawn back in, decline to participate: Let mom, or whoever else, know that you don’t want to hear about these kinds of things. People may not like it, but by doing that, you’re declining to get sucked back into the same family bullshit that may have driven you away to begin with.
Ultimately, after thinking it over and drawing the proper boundaries with your family, you may decide that moving back may very well end up being the right thing to do at this stage in your life. In that case, you should go for it — just don’t make a rash decision based upon a romanticized view of a place that may never really have existed to begin with.