Lonely for the Holidays: What Happens When We Change but are Still Connected to Our Unchanging Pasts

Holidays are tricky. They can be exciting times, filled with a frenetic break from the norm. With a mounting gift list to buy and mounds of food to make, it can be exhausting, but also satisfying. On the other hand, it can also be a time where we get together with the people we know, maybe more than we’d like to. This can be stressful to say the least, but for some of us, this is an unavoidable reality.

If you’re like me, you’ve made some fairly drastic changes in your lifestyle while also worked diligently on keeping your mental health and well-being a priority, while maybe your family… not so much. So how do we walk the line of being present with what may be an excrutiting experience, of being with the unchanged reminders of our pasts, while keeping ourselves safe and accounted for in the present? It takes skill, but it can be done without revisiting some old ghosts.

The key is to maintain healthy boundaries between where you end and those whom you’re interacting with, begin. This isn’t always easy though, especially if you haven’t had healthy boundaries modeled for you while you were growing up. I know for me, I didn’t even know what a boundary was. It was seen as being disloyal to be a separate emotional self from those around me. It was taken personally, as though they were being rejected in some way if the family didn’t take on what they were experiencing.

This is unhealthy. First, it’s important to set some boundaries for yourself. Another way to see it is setting up some rules, for how you will, and will not accept being treated, by anybody. What are the things that people do, or say that make you feel poorly about yourself. As though you’re not adding up in some way or maybe feel ashamed about who you are if you’re not meeting some impossible standard? These are the places you may want to visit while establishing your boundaries.

It’s important to know and understand this aspect of your relationships because the longer you’re exposed to these influences, the more likely you are to take these views and ideas of yourself on as your own. But also while you’re enduring these manipulations of feelings, you’re also unwittingly setting the standard for how you will tolerate being treated. This is likely how poor boundaries were established to begin with.

That being said, it’s crucial to understand how you’re feeling while you’re in the midst of what may be, an emotionally challenging environment. Strong opinions may be thrusted around or overly rancorous and mean spirited gossip may be forced towards anyone who is listening, are a few examples of unhealthy expressions of communication and bonding. So in order to know how you are feeling in the middle of what could be a confusing scene, it’s important to take some space and check in with your feelings.

Don’t be afraid to take space. Go for a short walk if you are some place that is scenic, or maybe you have a favorite coffee shop nearby where you can grab a calming cup of herbal tea. Even if it’s just a corner out of the flow of people gathering around you, take some time and space to see how you’re feeling.

Also, don’t be afraid to take this space as your own. If someone asks to come, or finds you while you’re checking in on your own, don’t hesitate to say you’d rather be alone. This is your time, and you will need some quiet to check in with yourself.

Once you’re alone, you can start to do the work of getting to the core of how you’re dealing with, and feeling about your current situation. For myself, I find a helpful place to start is by being kind to myself. It helps to allow for the emotions that are bound up for fear of being surrounded by what feels like an unsafe place to be, come to the surface and feel heard. If you’re used to an environment that is ripe with aggression, this may take some practice.

I didn’t have a lot of kindness modeled for me in my youth, towards self or others, so it took a lot of practice and getting used to. And on top of that, I was raised to believe that kindness was not only a feminine trait, but also a sign of weakness in Men, and not for the human trait it is. So understanding the beliefs we were raised with will also help to uncovering our emotional selves.

Because this is vulnerable work, sitting with our emotions and understanding how we’re feeling about, or towards our situations and ourselves. If all that was modeled for us was a sense of judgement and criticism, then vulnerability can be a scary and raw feeling. One we will most likely want to numb or avoid at all costs.

I know I did for a long time, and I learned how from my family. And it’s equally as important to know that it’s not your fault. It’s not your family’s fault either. But we can only focus on ourselves and knowing that these feelings are difficult in the first place, something we instinctively want to avoid, helps a great deal to relieve some of the guilt we may be feeling in how we’ve avoided them in past and maybe some of our aversion to them in the present.

This whole process is something that takes a lot of patients, and a lot of courage. Standing up to your family is no easy task, but if they are locked in unhealthy patterns, it is paramount that you put yourself first, and take care of your emotional health and mental space. And sometimes this can feel selfish.

Some places I get hung up on is wanting to help, change or “save” my family from the unhealthy habits I see them wrestling with, as I had or still am but maybe seeing them from a different perspective. You can’t make someone want to change. That’s important to understand, especially if you’ve, like I have, grown up having your emotions manipulated by caretakers. Knowing that we are solely responsible for ourselves is important to helping us create a healthy boundary between our emotional selves and those of others.

It’s equally as important to remember, too that just like you, everybody is capable of making healthy choices. I used to write people off, as though they were disposable, if they crossed me. This black and white way of thinking left me with a lot of burnt bridges and hard feelings, with few friends to call on for support. But it was also a way of keeping myself safe from potential sources of harm. Knowing we can keep ourselves safe while in relationship is an important step towards not only building healthy, lasting relationships, but also helping those whom maybe want something different, as you do.

That being said, leaving the door to our vulnerable selves wide open can lead to hurt feelings or feeling taken advantage of. So there may be a balance to strike somewhere between not writing people off, but also not letting them continue to practice old, unhealthy patterns of relationship. This is a place I explore with the help of my therapist, and something I definitely suggest seeking professional support and guidance for. These are not places I wanted to visit in the first place, but to go alone, and with no tools seemed overwhelming.

And finally, have a plan for what you will do if you are feeling stuck, or overwhelmed. Knowing that you have a plan, even if it’s just to take a walk and get away for a bit, helps to give you some sense of agency. Like no matter what happens, you are in charge of keeping yourself safe. You can rely on and trust yourself to take care of you, maybe in the ways you never were before.

I hope this helps in some way. The holidays can be tough and having as many resources around as possible will hopefully help to ease some of the tension they can bring. Be safe, be well and happy holidays. Peace : ]

Image Credits: “Backpacker Night Shift” by mallix is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0