Nosey aunties, arguing siblings, a partner nobody likes or a Christmas gift list that’s burning a hole in your wallet – spending the holiday season with family is not always the fun and games we’re told it’s supposed to be.
Communication expert and Right Voice for You facilitator, Laleh Hancock, understands the pressures that family festivities can place on individuals and offers advice for those secretly dreading the coming holidays.
“It’s the most wonderful time of the year. There’ll be much mistletoeing and hearts will be glowing when loved ones are near. It’s the most wonderful time of the year.”
According to popular Christmas songs, the holiday season is a time of unrivalled joy and family unity. However, Laleh Alemzadeh-Hancock believes this rosy holiday image ignores the reality for many Australians. “How many people dread having to spend time with their families at the holidays?” she asks.
Hancock believes that, if not dealt with effectively, family tension can have a serious impact on our well-being long before, and long after, the actual family gathering.
“Many people experience a high level of stress due to spending time with family; a nervousness and frustration that often arises before you even arrive at your destination. The repercussions of tense family gatherings can also cause sadness and depression for months afterward,” she cautions.
Although every family is unique, Hancock believes holiday tension usually stems from several, common stressors – financial tension, unwanted inquisitions, family drama and spouse/partner conflict. She offers the following advice to help individuals deal with family related-stress.
According to a recent study, nearly half of all holiday stress is attributed to financial pressures. Travelling to see family can incur large costs but, by far, the greatest pressure can be when buying gifts.
“Many people buy into an expectation that there is a certain dollar value before something is considered a gift,” says Hancock. “But you have to be honest about your finances and understand that not every gift has to cost money. Gifts are an expression of your love so something heartfelt-yet-free like a gratitude note or a song can be just as powerful.”
To avoid overspending, ask yourself, What gift do I have to offer that I can easily afford?
Whether it comes through casual questioning or an intense interrogation, having to explain what is going in one’s life (such as relationship news, job status, exam results) can be very stressful for some.
“There can be a pressure with family to pretend that you’re happy when you’re not; or that you’re doing well, when you’re not” says Hancock. “Most people feel they have to be completely honest and transparent with family, but it’s actually ok to hide stuff from your family in order to avoid conflict.” According to Hancock, having your voice is about knowing when to share, and when not to.
For the most conflict-free gatherings, ask yourself What information can my family receive at this time? or, what can this person hear right now?
Family conflict and drama (past and present)
It can be incredibly stressful to gather with family if there is an ongoing conflict, or one that is still fresh from the last holidays.
According to Hancock, family dramas can either be inflamed or resolved at holiday gatherings – and it pays to know whether you want to be involved. “Rather than try to keep others happy, it’s best to focus on what works for you. Importantly, let go of the past; who got in a fight with who; what happened. Don’t bring past holidays into the present.”
Ask yourself, Will it create greater wellbeing for me if I go to see my family at the holidays? or, What have I not considered as a possibility that is available with my family now?
Strained relations with your family and partner/spouse
What about if you love being with your family, but they don’t get on with your partner or spouse?
There can be an expectation that you will always spend holidays together with your spouse or long-term partner, but Hancock maintains that it’s ok to do things differently if it works best for you both. “It raises a lot of judgement if you go to family gatherings solo. Once you’re married, you’re supposed to be attached at the hip. But what if there is choice for you and your spouse that involves being in separate places?”
To discover a holiday arrangement that works best for you, ask yourself What would work for my relationship? or How much more fun would I have if my partner/spouse doesn’t join me? “Remember – it’s not true that you have to spend holidays with your spouse/partner – we just make it true.”
Vitally, Hancock wants people to understand that tradition and expectation do not have to dictate how you celebrate the holidays, nor who you celebrate with.
“Choice is something most people don’t realise they have,” she says. “But you do have options, and asking questions is the key to opening your mind to these possibilities. Don’t search for the answers. Let your unconscious mind reveal what’s true for you through your body’s reactions, impulses and gut instinct.”
Laleh Alemzadeh-Hancock is a management and communications consultant, Right Voice for You facilitator and the founder of Global Wellness for All, an organisation that creates wellness in all areas of life, with particular focus on individuals with perceived disabilities. With nearly 30 years’ experience in operational excellence, change management, organisational wellness and business consulting, Laleh has inspired and empowered hundreds of thousands of individuals including Fortune 500 executives, government agencies, non-profit organisations, athletes and veterans. She is an advocate for people of ages with special needs or disabilities and their caregivers, and was named the Top Coaching & Wellness Expert in Maryland, Virginia, and DC by Top Doctors Interviews.