How To Survive The Holidays With Family : Life Kit The holidays can be joyful and celebratory. They can also cause stress and unearth familial trauma. Life Kit talks to Dr. Andrea Bonior, a licensed clinical psychologist, to equip you with some strategies that will help you minimize holiday stress that stems from family.

Holiday Survival Guide: Family Style

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JULIA FURLAN, HOST:

Hi. This is NPR's LIFE KIT, and I'm Julia Furlan. This episode, we're talking about a very acute kind of stress - one of those where you just got to get out.

You don't need, like, a red button that you press, like, under a table that, like, ejects you into the stratosphere?

ANDREA BONIOR: (Laughter) That would be so beautiful. I could start a Kickstarter for that.

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FURLAN: We're talking about that pit in your stomach - what's going to happen? - feeling that can come up before meeting with family for the holidays. You know, that kind of thing where you find yourself putting on an outfit that you hate just so that nobody says anything weird about how you're presenting yourself? Or maybe you scroll through some news articles to see what kind of wild thing good old Uncle Ding Dong might say. Or maybe you just kind of sulk for a few hours.

Holidays can represent a lot of lovely, beautiful, joyful things. They can also be exhausting, fraught with tension and make you relive past trauma. Plus, there's sometimes that thing where you fall into your old familial roles - like, if you were the baby of the family, nobody takes you seriously, or everybody just rolls their eyes when you suggest something because they think you're the zany one. Hello, I'm a zany one.

So for this episode, we asked you, our listeners, and you answered with your holiday stress questions. And I called up Dr. Andrea Bonior, whose title I definitely know how to spell. So licensed clinical...

BONIOR: Psychologist.

FURLAN: ...I can't spell the word licensed to save my life.

BONIOR: It's a tricky one. You want to put an S where the C is in front, right? That's what I usually want to do.

FURLAN: Aside from a good speller, Andrea writes books and has done a weekly advice live chat at The Washington Post since 2005, and it's called "Baggage Check." Our first question is from Jackie in Las Vegas. She's 18, and I'm going to read a little bit from this letter.

It says - (Reading) I'm an 18-year-old girl. My parents have been divorced since I was 8 or 9 years old, and every year I dread the holidays. Not only do I have to hide my identity from everyone, I always feel like the black sheep when it comes to my father's side of the family. This year will be even tougher considering I lost both my grandparents this year. My grandmother was the one who would finally push back in the corner and would talk to me. I don't know how I'll be able to make myself seen when they hardly remember I'm present. My dad doesn't even call anymore; it's my stepmom and baby brother who remind him that he has another daughter. Is there a way to not feel so invisible?

BONIOR: Oh, that sounds so tough.

FURLAN: I know. It's heartbreaking.

BONIOR: Yeah. We all want to be seen and heard and understood. And the first thing I would say is that you're at the age where you do get to decide what you want your life to look like. And if you're repeatedly subjected to holiday gatherings where you really feel like you're made to feel like an outsider and that you're not respected and that you're not cared for, you do have the right, at some point, to start deciding to spend your holidays elsewhere.

Now, that might be premature, but it's just something to keep in mind, that you're no longer the 12-year-old who has to sit at the Thanksgiving table where somebody tells them to. You are able, as an adult, to decide that a relationship is not healthy for you.

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FURLAN: I just want to pause and reflect on this bit of advice because it's our first takeaway for this episode. You can decide that a relationship is not healthy for you, even if it's Thanksgiving or Hanukkah or Kwanzaa or Christmas or Halloween. I don't think we're really aware of how much agency we have to step away from situations where we feel unheard and unseen. And honestly, asserting that agency can be a radical grab for power.

There's that really beautiful Mary Oliver poem that goes - tell me what it is you plan to do with this one wild and precious life. I think about it a lot when it comes to asserting myself when it's difficult. Like, homie, you've only got a certain amount of time on this planet, and it is getting hot very fast. Just because it's a holiday doesn't mean you have to tolerate behavior that makes you feel bad.

And right off the bat, I just want to get one thing out of the way - family and holidays can look like a lot of different things. And ultimately, you should never feel forced to be in a dynamic that is abusive or damaging to you. If that is your experience, I just want to encourage you to find distance from abuse in all areas of your life.

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FURLAN: So our next letter touches on how keeping up appearances of joy and cheer around the holidays can actually be tremendously lonely. It's from a listener named Tori Whitlock.

(Reading) The message that I hear around the holidays is that it's all about family, but I don't have that. It becomes stressful to try and find something I can do to fill that for Thanksgiving and for Christmas, which seems to last for a full two months. Also, people will say that one of the great things about the holidays is that there's a feeling of love for strangers and our neighbors, but I feel the opposite way. I feel completely alienated. I hate people during the holiday season. They're awful. Have you ever tried to go shopping? They're rude in the parking lots, the lines - it's all awful.

Side note - I have basically been calling this letter bah humbug. I feel like this person is looking to, like, vent a little bit but is speaking to a larger frustration that I saw in a lot of people's letters saying, like, I just feel really alienated by all of this.

BONIOR: Yes. There's a forced nature to it. There's a hypocritical nature to it, I think, at some point, where - yes, oh, goodwill towards man - well, why the heck did you cut me off in traffic, you know?

FURLAN: (Laughter).

BONIOR: And so I think the first thing, paradoxically, for this person to remember is that they are not alone - that there are a lot of folks who struggle, particularly with the holidays, and feel like outsiders and feel like it's a stressful time that they'd love to fast-forward through. And that's why I think it's important to derive your own meaning from it.

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FURLAN: Hark, what is that you hear? No, it isn't the dulcet tones of Mariah's "All I Want For Christmas Is You" or everybody's favorite jam, "Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel." That is our second takeaway - have a plan to make your own meaning around the holidays.

BONIOR: Maybe you can derive meaning from the holidays as a time that you do kind of cocoon into yourself and you do let yourself be a little bit frustrated with things, but you treat yourself better. Maybe it comes in the form of some volunteer work at a cause that is important to you. Maybe it comes in the form of connecting with one friend that kind of gets it.

You can make of it what you have to. I think so many times the pressure and the alienation comes from this idea that we're supposed to feel a certain way. But in reality, when you think about the true meaning of what holidays are like for most people that enjoy them, it is a matter of them feeling loved and feeling connected to something greater than themselves, and you can find that, too.

FURLAN: You could also take December to do some kind of fun challenge, like try and do yoga a certain number of times a month or bake 12 different kinds of muffins.

BONIOR: The more that we can feel in control of it - hey, we're choosing this - the more soothing it can be and the less left out we'll feel because we're actively choosing what to do with our time, rather than - oh, it turns out no one's around this whole week, so now I'm totally alone - or whatever it is. So I think having a plan and letting yourself indulge a little bit in the ways that feel good to you - we need to give ourselves that break.

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FURLAN: And now we have our question, which is one that I really relate to because I've been known to launch into a lecture on colonization or genocide around the Thanksgiving table, and it's definitely not super fun. So this is from Laura Garrison.

LAURA GARRISON: My husband and I are white and adopted our son from South America many years ago. Last year, at 30, he embraced his native South American heritage, and spent all of Thanksgiving in mourning and protest for the horrible things that have been perpetrated on native peoples. While I sympathize, I view Thanksgiving as a time to spend with friends and families, to enjoy a good meal and socialize. He has also become vegan, which puts a lot of pressure on hosts to accommodate his needs. This will be the second year dealing with this, and quite frankly, last year, it destroyed my enjoyment of the holiday season. He basically did his thing and the rest of us celebrated as normal.

I want to be respectful of his very real concerns and choices, but the rest of the family is not understanding and feels resentment that he just doesn't fit in. If I side with my son, the rest of the family suffers. If I side with the rest of the family, my son suffers. Maybe we should just go on vacation during the holidays.

FURLAN: This question speaks to a larger question, which is, you know, not everybody who is attending the daytime event on the holiday necessarily agrees with all of the underpinnings of that holiday. It can be, you know, consumerism around present-giving. It can be a certain way of eating. And it could be the, like, you know, atrocities committed by one people against another people.

BONIOR: For sure.

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BONIOR: I think there is a balance there. You need to really think about - how can we find the middle ground? You know, it sounds like there's a false dichotomy here. I've got side with my family or with my son, when in reality, I would think, OK, how can we honor some of his beliefs and ask to incorporate it? Yeah, people might roll their eyes, but that's on them. OK, so he's against some of the ways that Thanksgiving really represents some offensive things, for sure. What is he for? What would be a way of honoring people within our celebration that respects some of the ways that they were harmed?

FURLAN: Our third takeaway is, if somebody doesn't agree with a particular gathering, for religious or cultural or personal reasons, make room for them to talk about it.

BONIOR: I'm guessing that there are aspects of celebration - you know, getting together, friends, family, respect, talking, conversation - that my son still buys into and still likes. So with that spirit in mind, how can we actually bring that into the situation? And how can I warn people in advance that, look - yeah, he doesn't eat turkey. Yeah, he finds certain aspects of this holiday offensive. But here is what is meaningful to him, and I can make a toast to that. Or we can have a moment of silence for this. Or he could speak for, you know, a couple of minutes at the table about the true meaning of, you know, being a family or what different cultures can mean to each other when we actually listen to each other.

And so I would start with asking the son, you know, how can I take you out of a box here and actually hear more about the nuance of what you do believe in and how that could be incorporated into the day?

FURLAN: And do you think that people should make the room chilly? Like, do you think that you should bring the, like, genocide to the Thanksgiving table?

BONIOR: I think it depends on what you're hoping to get out of it, honestly. If you just feel better having expressed it and that alone is the goal, then it sounds like a worthy goal. But if you're looking to truly change people's minds, you have to have realistic expectations that that might not happen because that's not going to necessarily be seen as the right place for the message.

FURLAN: Right. I also think that, like, educating your nieces and nephews is a tricky thing.

BONIOR: Yes. I mean, yes, it takes a village, but sometimes we don't like that village being the one to tell our kids what to think about, right?

FURLAN: Yeah. Yeah.

BONIOR: Yeah.

FURLAN: Yeah. Absolutely.

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FURLAN: So our final letter comes from Vivian Bond. And it's unfortunate, but there are a lot of letters like this in the inbox of families just not accepting people for who they are.

VIVIAN BOND: I came out as a trans woman to my family several months ago, and I haven't had a holiday with them and extended family yet. I know my mom is coming around, but my dad isn't, and no extended family knows. I'm worried about whether I'll have to pretend to be a boy for a week or if I'll even be welcomed at all. I'm dreading constantly being misgendered and treated with a nephew or grandson or whatever I was presented to them as rather than who I actually am. I'm dreading disguising myself just to make family happy at my own expense.

BONIOR: Yeah. I can imagine that would be truly dreadful, and nobody deserves that. You know, it does have echoes of that first letter - just feeling like you're forced to share a space with folks who are family, who really just don't get you and don't understand you and don't see you for who you really are.

And so I do think finding an ally is important here. I'm heartened by the fact that the writer says that her mother's coming around. The more that her mom becomes someone who she is able to talk with and feel understood by, the more she can point-blank ask her mom, like, look - how can I be true to myself and feel emotionally protected here and not - and still be part of the holidays? Or is this year - that's not possible because you already hear from Dad that he's going to be difficult about this? It could be that folks decide, hey, this doesn't feel right to me; I'm going to skip this one this year, you know?

FURLAN: Yeah.

BONIOR: And that's OK. But I like the idea of keeping communication with her mother very, very strong so that her mother can use this opportunity to learn how to support her daughter in the ways that her daughter needs.

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FURLAN: This is our final takeaway for this episode - if you know that a particular holiday event is going to be really stressful, find an ally if you can. And obviously, you should also be that ally to the people in your family who need it.

BONIOR: Her mother can kind of be the go-between and the reality check of how to make this the least painful thing possible. And if that's not possible, then how her daughter can maybe show up for dessert or, you know, Skype in for a half-hour but not actually be there or whatever the case is going to be. I love the fact that at least the mom is coming around because I think, ultimately, what you need here is an ally. You need an ally to help you be understood. And eventually, in an ideal world, her mom can work on the other family members, too.

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FURLAN: Do you ever advocate for, like, an escape plan?

BONIOR: Oh, do I ever not?

(LAUGHTER)

BONIOR: Yes. The more forethought, the better. You don't need an exact, rehearsed script. Know your environment going in. So is it like, OK, I know that I can say I need to take a walk. Or my sister in law is awesome; I know I can, like, make an excuse to kind of corner her and be off to the side. Or, OK, I know that there are a bunch of silent dudes watching football at some point in a basement, and I can just go join them (laughter), and they'll leave me alone.

And, you know, have that specific escape plan. I know I can, you know, bring up my niece's piano recital. I know that, you know, my uncle and I both like fishing, so we can talk about that. The more that you have conversational escape plans and the more that you have logistical escape plans, then you can feel more empowered that you're not going to be caught in a situation that you can't get out of.

And also, just asserting yourself. I mean, you'd be amazed how many times part of the problem is that people can't say, you know what? I'm going to call it a night. Or people can't say, you know what? I'm not comfortable talking about that right now. How about football? Or how about, you know, whatever the latest movie is that is out? Give yourself permission to change gears. And sometimes that permission's hard to come by. We don't - we feel guilty about it, but really, you need to protect your own emotional health, and you deserve that as well.

FURLAN: Right. And I think that, you know, you could always be like, how about climate change? Actually, I guess that - you can't say that.

BONIOR: (Laughter) That's great.

FURLAN: Even that might be tricky (laughter).

BONIOR: Yeah.

FURLAN: But like - so what you're saying is, like, having conversational escape plans for - like, each person that you're afraid to see, you could have a topic that you have on deck to talk about them with, even if they - sometimes somebody will say something horrible, and you can just, like, respond by moving forward in the conversation, and they'll just go with you.

BONIOR: Totally. I mean, never underestimate the power of, like, not even responding and just being, like, oh, so (laughter) - and just shifting gears.

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FURLAN: And on that note, we're going to end this episode, as we do, with a little list of the takeaways so that you can get them more stuck in your head than any earwormy (ph) Christmas song. First up, you can decide if a relationship is not healthy for you. Next is find your own meaning for the holiday season. Our third takeaway is, if somebody doesn't agree or celebrate a given holiday, make space for them to speak to that and for everybody to listen. And finally, if you know that it's going to be hard, find an ally and have an escape plan.

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FURLAN: This is my sincerest holiday wish - that this holiday season is devoid of all of the bad stuff, my friends.

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FURLAN: For more NPR LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes. I hosted one on making friends. You can find those at npr.org/lifekit. And while you're there, don't forget to subscribe to our newsletter so you don't miss a single episode. And here, as always, is a completely random tip. This time, it's from NPR's Liana Simstrom.

LIANA SIMSTROM, BYLINE: If you are trying to open a bottle of champagne and you want to make sure that it doesn't explode and the cork doesn't go flying, you should turn the bottle and not the cork. So you hold the cork stationary and use your hand to turn the bottle in order to remove the cork.

FURLAN: If you've got a good tip or you want to suggest a topic, email us at lifekit@npr.org. This episode was produced by the wonderful Sylvie Douglis. Meghan Keane is the managing producer. And Clare Schneider is the wind beneath our wings. I'm Julia Furlan. Thank you so much for listening.

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