The holidays bring a lot of perks — time off work, snow days, cheesy Hallmark movies and spending time with family members who you may not get to see much throughout the year. The last one can be a bit of a double-edged sword, however.
Although you love your relatives, there’s something about a large gathering ― combined with being back in a house where you were once a different person ― that can make you more stressed than normal. Constant questions about your personal life and your job or comments about your eating habits or body may pop up. You might (strongly) oppose their political views. You may feel pressure to get along when you’re just not feeling it.
If you’re equal parts excited about and dreading family time, you’re not a bad daughter, son, sibling or cousin; you’re just human. There are psychological (and unconscious) reasons this happens. Here’s what makes you feel that way, plus some expert tips on how to navigate sticky conversations and prevent your family from pushing your buttons this season.
Being around family causes old dynamics to resurface
One of the most common reasons being around family can stress you out is that although you’re not a child anymore, you’re suddenly back in that environment. That can cause a regression in behavior that’s reflected in yourself and in the way people treat you, said Joseph Cilona, a licensed clinical psychologist and personal coach based in New York.
In other words, your parents might still treat you as though you’re not old enough to make important decisions on your own, or you might feel you need a family member’s approval for something you do or how you look.
“Many find themselves regressing to behaviors, feelings and reactions that they’ve outgrown in their adult lives and relationships but were commonplace during their upbringing,” Cilona said. “Although these kinds of responses can occur at any time of the year, the holidays often increase both the likelihood and intensity of these types of emotions and reactions.”
There’s a pressure to appear perfect, and that can weigh on you
On top of that, there’s also the unrealistic expectation (largely thanks to social media) that you have to be your best, most joyful self during this time ― no matter what else is going on in your life.
“It’s stressful to be around family, period,” said Erin Olivo, a licensed clinical psychologist based in New York. “The one thing that is different during the holidays, as opposed to other times of the year, is the pressure of trying to be that big, happy family.”
Instead of trying to project a perfect image of yourself and your family on Instagram, Olivo advised, stop and practice acceptance that the holidays aren’t uniquely different from any other given day. Because really, how many families are actually wearing matching sweaters and playing touch football in the snow (despite what you may see on your social media feed)?
Your family can (sometimes unconsciously) bring out the worst in you
The uglier side can come out more easily around your family because you might feel more secure around them, according to Olivo.
“We know that they are not going to stop being our mom, brother or sister if we snap at them, so we subconsciously take them for granted. We don’t have that same level of security with other people in our lives,” she said.
Another reason family tensions might be more palpable is that you have a lot of history with these people ― both good and bad. But it’s those not-so-nice memories that can cause a knee-jerk reaction when brought up again, Cilona said. Even if it’s not triggered by a person, certain familiar events, food, music and the environment in general can spark an emotional response in you, he added.
Your environment might be making you cranky
It’s also worth noting that if you’re spending time at a family member’s house over the holidays, you’re likely not sleeping well in a bed that isn’t yours. Factor that in with a disrupted routine, and you’ve got a recipe for stress.
“Disruption of daily routines and habits can significantly impact emotional reactivity,” Cilona said. “Stressors such as sleep, diet, exercise and alcohol consumption can translate into an impact on your emotions.”
What You Can Do About It All
Knowing why your family is making you crazy is helpful. But there are also a few tips you can use to make it through the holidays without causing a feud. Below is what experts recommend.
Set an agenda beforehand
“Before you attend holiday gatherings, take a few moments to think about what your priorities are when it comes to spending time with family,” Cilona said. This should be a simple goal ― spending more time with Mom or making it a point to sit down and talk with Aunt Sally after dinner ― not trying to resolve a long-standing conflict or disagreement, he added.
Know what topics are off-limits
You don’t have to talk about sensitive subjects if you’d prefer not to. “People think to have a fully authentic relationship with someone they have to be able to talk about anything, and that’s not true,” Olivo said. “Different people serve different functions in your life.”
Just because you’re spending the holidays together doesn’t mean you have to be physically together every hour of the day. If you’re fatigued or stressed by your family, take a walk or go into an empty room for a little bit to regroup, Olivo said. If you can’t swing that, she suggested giving yourself a job, like being on drink duty or making sure the appetizer table is always stocked.
“Having a task can help you feel more in control, and you’re also off the hook for having to socialize so much, which can be helpful if you’re feeling cranky or irritated that day,” she said.
Keep in mind the holidays mark the passage of time
“One thing that makes holidays hard for everyone is that it’s an anniversary for people lost or even those who just can’t make it home this year,” Olivo said. “It’s important to acknowledge that some people — or you — might not be that fun to be around because of that.”
If you’re feeling this way, Olivo said the best thing you can do is to acknowledge the feeling. Accept that you’re feeling blue rather than try to force your way out of it, and be kind to yourself, she said.