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15 Ways to Cope with the Holidays After Family Estrangement

Beware euphoric recall, and be honest about what you actually miss.

Key points

  • Those in fractured families often become anxious about the long holiday season that they may spend alone.
  • Lowering expectations and reframing the holiday experience can help the estranged cope with end-of-year blues.
  • A key to negotiating the holidays is to anticipating and planning for difficult days and family gatherings.
Nicole Michalou/Pexels
Source: Nicole Michalou/Pexels

Family gatherings at the holidays can put estrangement into sharp relief. Each get-together constitutes a kind of roll call for who’s in and who’s out. This can be devastating for those excluded and challenging for those included in family events where tensions run high.

The estranged suffer from greater depression, loneliness, and low self‐worth as the weather turns cold.

“Fall sucks,” a woman who doesn't talk to her siblings said bluntly. “I say it every year. The holidays rub your face in the estrangement.”

One estranged woman reported that she wakes up crying in her sleep, devastated by her losses. Even some who chose to sever family relations sometimes find that holidays spent alone prompt a reevaluation of whether a cutoff was the right choice.

Whether you decide to go solo or join in your family gatherings, here are tips to help you cope.

  1. Attend only those holiday events where you feel wanted and welcome. Prioritize your safety and well-being; do not participate in a gathering where you’ve previously felt ganged up on or diminished. If you do decide to go, think about what went badly before and prepare accordingly. Decide on a few “exit” remarks to use if a conversation begins to make you uneasy.
  2. Once you’re among the relatives, keep interactions superficial, saying nothing that could later be held against you. If a conversation becomes awkward, recall your exit preparation and use an appropriate remark. You can simply remove yourself from an uncomfortable situation: allow yourself to be distracted by a nearby conversation; suddenly realize your help is needed in the kitchen; cut the moment short by noticing someone you must talk to or walk into another room. If necessary, wrap up your visit and leave.
  3. Beware of euphoric recall. This is a psychological process wherein people exaggerate happy memories and positive feelings while blocking out bad memories and the associated negative emotions. Reminiscing through rose-colored glasses distorts past realities to prop up present-day optimism. Should you find that you’re engaging in euphoric recall, remind yourself of why you resorted to avoiding these people in the first place.
  4. When considering whether to reach out to an estranged family member during the holidays, ask yourself what you want from the relationship and what you hope to gain. Are your goals realistic, given your relative’s behavior and personality? Be honest with yourself in evaluating the possibilities – both positive and negative.
  5. Think Friends. Like the six characters in that beloved show who value and prioritize voluntary kin, cultivate people you think of “like family” and who, in the absence of blood or legal ties, can step into a family role. Sometimes called “chosen family," these individuals bring two essential components to a voluntary relationship: choice and positive reinforcement. They’re the ones who choose to know you, understand your positions, and support you in doing what you think is best. Cultivate such relationships by reciprocating: focusing on listening and showing support.
  6. Beware of relatives who engage in “toxic positivity” – maintaining a false narrative through denial, minimization, and invalidation of authentic experiences and emotions. Set boundaries for what you will tolerate in these situations. It’s possible, although perhaps difficult, to manage your authentic feelings without denying them. Don’t sacrifice your sanity to protect someone else’s rose-colored glasses.
  7. Make the holidays your own. Decorate your home just as you like, purging items that remind you of your losses. Then think ahead to make specific plans for the days you won’t be at a family gathering. Consider entertainment, such as attending a concert or visiting a museum or botanical garden. For a special meal, prepare dishes you like best, just for yourself.
  8. Volunteer to help at a crisis center for homeless people, refugees, or others in need. Surround yourself with people who appreciate your time and efforts.
  9. To address your spiritual side, attend a religious service, maybe of a religion different from your own. Plan a peaceful day focused on appreciating what you have, rather than dwelling on what’s missing.
  10. Get out to see the local decorations, especially the lights. Every culture throughout human history has celebrated a holiday that brings light to the darkest days of the year.
  11. Don't feel obligated to spend the holidays as one “should.” This time is yours. Do what you wish. Take a trip, organize closets, or tackle a project you’ve put off. Or give in to simple pleasures: binge-watching TV, reading, or eating whatever you want, when you want to.
  12. Decide consciously to start new traditions that make the holidays less stressful and more fun. Some activities above – volunteering, making a day or evening of viewing decorations, preparing a special meal – could become happy annual customs.
  13. Avoid letting technology sprinkle salt on your wounds. Mute or delete your social media apps during the holidays. You might even decide to leave them for good.
  14. Get real in assessing what you’re missing. Maybe, honestly, above all you’re grateful that you don’t have to deal with family drama.
  15. Manage rumination through journaling. Let your writing help you understand your family’s dynamics. Be realistic about what you feel; look for meaning behind what you're going through. Accept that, for their own reasons, some people cannot admit that they or their families have problems. Lower expectations and reframe the holiday experience to cope with end-of-year blues.

Whatever you choose to do, be proactive. Anticipate the challenging aspects of the days ahead; make your plans and stick to them. Following through on what’s best for you allows you not only to take control of your situation, but also to congratulate yourself for doing just that.

Facebook image: F01 PHOTO/Shutterstock

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