The holidays are upon us. That time of year when personal, familial, and cultural expectations collide.

An earlier post explored the topic of expectations as a thread connecting holiday stress and unhappiness. So, this year I thought I would focus on a short simple list of things to keep in mind as many of us migrate homeward.

This year might be particularly tricky for some us because of the recently ended presidential election. I would like to believe that family and friends always will respect and honor everyone’s current circumstance. Alas, we do not live in such a rarefied world.

For those of you walking into the lion’s den this holiday season I submit the following short list of suggestions to consider:

1) It’s ok to change the subject if you are uncomfortable with a conversation. Even if you have a strong and well-reasoned opinion, the holidays might not be the best time for its unveiling. Deciphering the direction of a conversation is difficult, but here are three approaches that might be helpful:

a) Pay attention to your body. Is your heartrate increasing? Are you starting to sweat? Are you noticing specific physical sensations (e.g., tightness, numbness, tingling, pain, etc.)? Are you beginning to fidget and move around?  

b) Pay attention to your thoughts. Are you thinking only of your response? Are you thinking of ways to humiliate someone? Is your mind racing? Are you thinking of historical hurts? Are you thinking that your relatives “always” do this to you?

c) Pay attention to your emotions. Are you getting angry? Are you experiencing sadness? Do you want to cry or scream? Are you feeling overwhelmed? Are you flooded with a symphony of contradictory emotions?

If you find yourself answering yes to any of these questions, it might be time to talk about sports or the weather!

2) It’s ok to disengage and/or detach for the moment if you are experiencing discomfort and your attempts to change the subject are not working. You also can feel free to disengage or detach if you simply decide it’s unsafe to do anything else.

Disengagement can take many forms: not participating in a conversation, leaving the room, playing with a pet or any children that might be in attendance, or taking a walk. A favorite of mine is volunteering to help someone. Don’t just sit there, do something!

In some cases, simply declining an invitation to attend an event might be the best strategy.

3) It's ok to prioritize your needs if you believe that others will not respect you or your opinions. Some of us come from families in which gaslighting or bomb-throwing are par for the course. In these instances, it might be necessary to honor your health and well-being by surrounding yourself only with loved ones who support you, no matter what.

Prioritizing your needs could mean missing a family event or double-booking yourself. It might mean verbalizing your decision to not engage in a difficult encounter. In my opinion, anything that allows you to focus on your own well-being, and does not harm others, is justified in moments of stress.

Does it need to be said?

Finally, I’ll offer one more simple suggestion. If you find yourself in a hairy situation with no means of escape and you’re considering jumping into the drama at the risk of your own sanity, ask yourself these three questions: Does it need to be said? Does it need to be said now? Does it need to be said by me?

I learned these questions from friends in Al-Anon as a strategy for maintaining emotional sobriety. Luckily, they are questions that are invaluable for anyone and everyone. Reflecting on the questions allows you to distance yourself from the scrum. The answers sometimes are secondary.  

And if all else fails, simply remember that all of us make mistakes over and over again. That’s how we move towards change. David Bowie’s 1977 song, “Always Crashing in the Same Car” is a moody song celebrating this all-too-human foible. Have a listen and remember that even David Bowie wasn’t perfect, close, but not perfect.