We know that forced-feeling holiday celebrations get in the way of expressing genuine feelings of connection and affection we have for those we care about. Why does it sometimes seem impossible to have a good family experience? 35% of respondents to our survey told us that their relationships are strained during the holidays, and 26% told us that they were estranged from members of their immediate family due to interpersonal conflict. It tells us that this is a very serious season for a significant fraction of people, and it also tells us for a lot of folks, the holidays with friends and family can be rewarding and fulfilling. 

“The mental noise and negative bias introduced by this kind of thinking activates conflict centers in the brain, accompanied by black and white thinking and emotional reasoning. Don’t go there. Stop…breathe…take in the circumstances, and think about all the choices you actually have.”Grant

As year’s end approached, Marissa was reflecting on the ambivalence she was feeling about getting together with her family:

“I hear so many horror stories around this time of year that I find myself becoming uneasy and second-guessing myself. I always enjoyed — or thought I enjoyed — being around my family during the holidays. Only lately, I’ve begun to wonder if that was because I felt I was under some kind of obligation to ‘enjoy’ being with everybody in my family. Well, that made me feel a little, well, guilty, like there was something wrong with me. So I decided I’d fix it.”

Irrelationship song-and-dance routines function from a very early age to change and cover up awareness of unhappy feelings that we as children experience from our adult caretakers. When we’re very young we start learning about how we and others are “supposed” to feel, respond and behave. Later, that learning may become the basis for predicting or simulating how others ought to be in adult life. We can get pulled into familiar roles, especially when we get together with families and old patterns have a chance to take over.

When we are pulled into these old roles, we can have difficulty sorting out what our own thoughts and feelings are from what we’re “supposed to” think and feel when in company with others, especially our families or anyone with whom we have a lot of “history”. 

“Overdoing making sure everybody has a good time can get in the way of just enjoying the holidays.”Daniel

“I remember always loving the holidays,” Marissa continued. “But in the last year or two, I’ve sort of been sort of dreading going home and doing the whole thing all over again when I’m not sure I’m a hundred-percent sure into it — or, at least, into everybody I was doing it for.”

Hyped and hopeful expectations can make our time with loved ones and others emotionally loaded, making it difficult to experience positive feelings even for those we truly care about. Just when we know we’re “supposed” to be enjoying ourselves and our loved ones the most, we’re at the greatest risk of disappointment.

Marissa explained further:

“Oddly, I am not from a family that is terribly difficult to get along with, and we all seem genuinely happy to see each other. But still, as years go by, and as I’ve started my own family, I am finding myself judging my own experiences — worse: comparing them to what I think other people are doing, spinning stories that I tell myself about what I, what we, should be doing. What is everyone else doing — and experiencing — around and during the holidays? I ask myself.”

The fear of not “getting it right” at the holidays can insinuate itself between us and those we care about as we feel obligated to make sure everybody’s having a good time. Instead, we “overthink” and worry about everything so that, successful or not, we’re not able even to enjoy our own party! We lose sight of all the great alternatives we have, feeling convinced things will be the same as they always have been. 

“Expectations and comparisons are highly effective holiday torpedos.”Mark

“The truth is, my family has had issues for years. And…I love them, love seeing them, and am going to accept my exceptionally mixed feelings about them. Hallmark or not, I am going to allow myself to experience the holidays exactly as they are — and are not.”

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Interesting read…I have been feeling stressed about going home for the holidays for the last three years. The first of those three I went and had horrible stomach pains the whole time I was there; the second time I 100% intended to go to Prague on my own for Christmas but felt guilty and went to be with my family instead (and hated it); and this year I really just want to be on my own but my mother is expecting me and I don’t want to disappoint her. Despite all that stress, we actually get along fine. Well, actually.… Read more »