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Help! My family stresses me out at Christmas


Dec. 17, 2010 | NASHVILLE (UMNS)

Visiting family over the holidays for many means walking a proverbial tightrope of emotions. A UMNS photo illustration by Kathleen Barry.
Visiting family over the holidays for many means walking a proverbial tightrope of emotions. A UMNS photo illustration by Kathleen Barry.
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You’ve been to see your therapist for a “booster” session. You’ve refilled your prescription for anti-depressants. You’ve practiced your positive affirmations. You’re feeling good. You’re feeling strong. There’s no doubt in your mind that this year you can handle the holidays with your family.

“This time definitely will be different,” you tell yourself.

Yeah, right.

Despite your best efforts to prepare yourself for the worst in what are supposed to be the best of times, it all falls apart the minute the past creeps back into the present.

Grandma Minnie mentions you look like you’ve gained a few pounds. Your sister teases you about your non-existent love life. Your liberal brother angrily debates politics with your conservative father. Mom is so busy people pleasing she doesn’t even ask you about your promotion at work. Before you can say “Ho! ho! ho!,” you’re back to being 15 years old again and feeling hurt, resentful or furious.

And all the years of expensive therapy disappear along with expectations of Kodak moments and hopes for a holly, jolly Christmas.

Reality check.

“People too often think that they’ll go home for the holidays, and it will be different,” said Amy Birchill, director of St. Luke’s Center for Counseling and Life Enrichment, a United Methodist ministry in Houston. “They think, this year we’ll all get along. Or I’ll see my family again, and it will be a great thing. But they don’t take into account that they can’t undo perhaps years of dysfunctional relationships in just one holiday weekend.

“If you go back with different behaviors and a different outlook,” she added, “you have a chance of making things different and having a pleasant time. But if you go back and (replay) those family roles that you were always in, then it’s going to blow up again … especially if you’ve changed, but others haven’t.”

Feeling like a teen again

Amy Birchill, director of St. Luke’s Center for Counseling and Life Enrichment in Houston. A web-only photo courtesy of Amy Birchill.
Amy Birchill, director of St. Luke’s Center for Counseling and Life Enrichment in Houston. A web-only photo courtesy of Amy Birchill.

Jack, a United Methodist pastor, knows the right things to say and do when it comes to encouraging and advising others dealing with holiday stress — especially managing family dynamics.

But when he makes the five-hour trip home to “celebrate” Christmas with his parents, grandparents and brothers, he reverts to being the middle child who bickers with his younger brother, argues with his father and absorbs the stresses between his parents and grandparents.

“When I’m away from home, I am a capable 29-year-old United Methodist minister who people look up to,” he said. “I can usually hold it together and keep perspective on life’s challenges. But when I go home, I become someone trapped by the same challenges that I’m supposed to be able to overcome in the ministry. I become the teenage son again.”

Janice can relate. She, too, becomes a different person with her family than she is in the pulpit.

“I always feel like I have to tread very lightly,” she said. “I think I have to watch what I say and what I do, and most of the time, I can’t be myself. There’s a lot of pressure not to do anything that will upset anyone, and that reminds me of growing up.”

Her mother had a history of mental illness. Especially at Christmastime, her father would warn her not to argue with her mother. “We don’t want her to have to go back into the hospital,” he would say.

Now when she visits family at Christmastime, Janice ends up wanting to follow the example of Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz." She wishes she could click her heels three times and just be gone.

A healthy place for the holidays

So why do we do it? Are we gluttons for punishment? What would happen if we just said “no” to the invitation to gather with family this holiday season? Birchill warns despite possible consequences, in the end, it could be the healthiest thing we do for ourselves.

“If you’re going through a challenging time and you know it will be bad for you to go home, I think you have to protect yourself,” Birchill said. “You can say, ‘I’m not coming. I have other plans.’ Or you can say, ‘This year, I just really need to stay here and take care of myself.’"

Whatever your decision, be prepared for a reaction, she added.

“You always have a right to choose to do what you want to do,” she said. “And you really should be looking out for yourself and what’s going to make you healthy and keep you in a good place.”

Rather than bemoan the fact your family doesn’t live up to the happy hype of the holidays, Birchill recommends creating a healing community within your reach that can support you and keep you going.

“For a lot of folks who are in dysfunctional families and have mental-health issues or other things that are not really healthy in their families, they leave those family settings and create their own,” Birchill said.

“It’s incredibly important because that is part of what does keep you healthy and what does allow you to grow in different ways,” she added. “If you don’t like the way you act when you’re around this one group of people, then being around a new group of people that you feel comfortable with and safe with helps you change your own behaviors so that you feel like a different person.

“We can’t change without the benefit of perspective and influence of others.”

Just remember you are not alone. Even some of the families in the Bible were dysfunctional. The dynamics among Joseph and his brothers in Genesis, for example, aren’t exactly the stuff of Norman Rockwell illustrations. But God can be present in even deeply flawed families, and God can help us love our relatives anyway — even when they drive us crazy.

*Passi-Klaus is a staff writer on the Public Information Team at United Methodist Communications.

News media contact: Heather Hahn or Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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