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How to tell your family you’re not coming home for the holidays

(Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash)

It’s a tale as old as time: people dreading spending time with their family over the holidays. But what if you’ve hit your limit. If you go home, you know you’re going to have a bad time, you’re going to be triggered, there will be arguments. Whatever the case may be, you’ve decided you don’t want to go home this year. So how do you break the news to your family?

I sought guidance from two Seattle therapists. Jacquie Gallaway is CEO of MEND Seattle, a counseling center by women, for women.

“It’s really common,” Gallaway said. “I have clients who will start talking about the holidays in August and September.”

And Seattle Therapy Group marriage and family counselor, Kimberly Slagle.

“I feel like the majority of my clients are talking about this in sessions.”

Selfishness and self care

When one is deciding whether or not they want to go home, they may be wondering if they’re being selfish or if this is self care. It feels like a fine line.

“It’s a big question, but I feel like knowing our limits and learning to say ‘no’ is one of the best ways we can practice self care,” Slagle said. “It’s not selfish to know our limits and discuss those with family members or anyone, really. I would argue it’s just the opposite. One of my biggest mentors, Dr. Brene Brown, she has a saying that I love. Something like: Setting boundaries means loving our self enough to say no, even when we risk disappointing someone else. It’s so true.”

“Obviously we don’t want to disappoint our family members over the holidays, or anytime really,” she said. “Which is why I think boundary setting is so hard. But it’s also really important to get clear on our boundaries and have the courage to bring those up because it keeps us out of disappointment and resentment later.”

There will be hurt feelings

But in order to free yourself, there will probably be some hurt feelings.

“We can’t really control how someone else is going to feel or perceive us in that moment,” Slagle said. “So it’s choosing to have a difficult conversation, some discomfort up front, to avoid that resentment later. I think empathizing with them, having that conversation, like: I hear you, I care about you, I still love you … and, I’m needing or wanting or longing for something different. Really not personalizing it, not making it about criticizing what you don’t like about them, right? Really making it about you.”

Gallaway agrees with Sagle, that making boundaries is healthy.

“I think it’s really kind to anticipate there would be a response of hurt feelings or maybe even anger,” Gallaway said. “But they get to have their feelings. We all get to have our feelings. Maybe one reframe can be that, if there are hurt feelings or if there’s anger, they clearly care. It can be hard to take it in that way, but you have impact. It matters that you’re not going to be there. But that doesn’t mean that you don’t get to choose.”

Holidays on your own terms

Slagle says you can also choose to attend, but on your own terms.

“What can I commit to versus what can’t I commit to,” Slagle said. “Some people, I think, are so scared to do that, it becomes this black and white all-or-nothing decision. So maybe for some people it’s saying hey, I might stop by for a little bit, but then I’m going to do this other thing.”

You can be firm and set boundaries that give you space. Stay in a hotel room, go for walks, tell your family that you get overwhelmed and need to take a break to read or call a friend who you can vent to. Or maybe you don’t go home for the holidays, but you offer up another time to get together.

Gallaway says a common cause of conflict between adult children and their parents is not matching up expectations with reality. We want our parent or child to act a certain way, to say a certain thing, and when they don’t act according to our expectations we get upset. Try and realistically think of what your family member is capable of and enter situations with reasonable expectations.

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