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Your Holiday Survival Guide: 5 Tips from a Licensed Therapist

Written By: Natasha D’Arcangelo, QS, LMHC, NCC, CCTP, CCFP

It’s already that time of year. Every store is covered in red and green, and it seems as though every commercial is about buying gifts for the season. For some of us, this is a joyous transition that we are excited about. I think for most of us however, the holidays make us more stressed. We don’t want to be Scrooge, but we are just not excited and can’t wait until it’s all over. If this sounds like you, here are some tips that can help make things more manageable this year. 

  1. There is no law that states you are required to spend time with your family during the holidays. 

We can love our families AND know that they are not good for our mental health. If you know family time is toxic, you’re allowed to not visit them. I give you permission to say no. Tell them your therapist said it’s not a good idea - I’m happy to take the blame. 

If this feels too overwhelming because of the inevitable backlash or guilt trips, then think about going for a long weekend instead of 10 days. If they live closer to you, think about going for one meal rather than spending the entire day. If you limit the amount of time you will be around them, it cuts down on the toxicity and lessens your feelings of powerlessness. 

  1. Create memories rather than spend ridiculous amounts of money. 

Those commercials we can’t seem to escape are all pushing the message that if you don’t buy the exact perfect thing for each person on your shopping list, then you are a failure as a person or a parent. The truth is that your child is probably not going to remember what you bought for them for Christmas this year 20 Christmases from now (even if they are insisting it’s the ONLY thing they want). What they will remember is the time that you spent with them creating memories. This saves you money and stress. You can bake cookies together or watch a favorite holiday movie snuggled on the couch or make ornaments if you have a tree. If you’ve seen the movie “Inside Out” these kinds of moments become core memories. 

  1. No is a complete sentence. 

This time of year, events seem to be happening every other day. Your job has events going on, your spouse has events going on and that’s not including all the things happening at your child’s school. When you add in family obligations and/or religious-based activities it feels like you never have a moment to breathe. I encourage you to take a step back, take a deep breath, and politely say “no” when you are being asked to add things onto your already overloaded plate. It doesn’t mean that you are rude, it means that you are human and there are only so many hours in a day. Your interactions with everyone in your life will be more pleasant if you’ve built in some downtime without obligations. Here’s a sentence you can use: “Thank you so much for the invitation! We are honored that you thought to invite us. Unfortunately, we will be unable to attend your event. I hope you have a great time!”

  1. Boundaries can be your superpower. 

If being around your family means they will insult your identity in some way or put down your career or bully your child - break out the boundaries. Just because they are family does not mean that you must force yourself to stay there and listen to their nonsense. You’re also allowed to set clear expectations ahead of time. For example, if your mother always insults how you parent in front of your child, you can let her know ahead of time that you will attend the family gathering under one condition - that she does not engage in that behavior. She’ll probably be upset about it, but typically when people get defensive about being called out, it’s because they know what they’ve done is not right. That’s not on you to own - that’s for your mother to deal with (if she chooses to). Your mother may decide that she has no interest in changing because she’s done nothing wrong.

This is where boundaries come in. The moment she starts insulting your parenting in front of everyone, you can remind her that your expectation was that she not engage in that type of behavior. If she continues, then leave. You don’t need to argue or try to change her mind. You can say in a regular tone of voice, “I let you know before I came here that I would not tolerate this kind of behavior. You have chosen to ignore what I said, so I am choosing to leave.” You might have to repeat it a few times and it’s also important that you don’t get into a back-and-forth - just leave. This will be anxiety-inducing in the moment but in the long run, you’ll feel better having stood up for yourself. The moment you set a boundary and follow through on what you said, you begin to reclaim your voice and your power. It’s not easy but it allows you to use your time and energy on what you can control. 

  1. Remember that it’s okay to not be okay. 

The holidays can be especially painful if you are grieving the loss of a loved one. The first holiday season after they pass might not be the most difficult - it might be the eighth one. There is no time limit on grieving, and it is common for us to continue to miss that person for the rest of our lives. If you go into the holiday season knowing that it is likely to be painful, I encourage you to reach out for professional help. A therapist can help you navigate heavy emotions, create a safe place for you to discuss them, and help you find coping skills to help you manage it all. 

Additionally, death is not the only loss that we grieve. You can be grieving the end of a relationship, a cross-country move, taking care of ailing parents, or being passed over for a promotion at work. If the holidays make you sad instead of joyful, that doesn’t mean there is something wrong with you. It means that you are human, and this time of year is hard for you. Therapy is the perfect place to process these thoughts. There’s also 988 which is the National Suicide and Crisis Hotline available 24/7 if you are struggling. 

The best way to survive the holidays is to focus on meeting your own needs rather than spending all of your time and energy on everyone else. Sometimes that means saying no, setting boundaries, or staying home - and that’s okay. If your needs are being met, you won’t just survive the holidays - you might even enjoy yourself! 


Meet the Author

Natasha D’Arcangelo

Natasha is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and is passionate about breaking down the stigmas that surround mental health. She hopes that sharing her experience with compassion fatigue and burnout helps others with their healing journeys.


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