This article is part of SELF’s Rest Week, an editorial package dedicated to doing less. If the last few years have taught us anything, it’s that taking care of yourself, physically and emotionally, is impossible without genuine downtime. With that in mind, we’ll be publishing articles up until the new year to help you make a habit of taking breaks, chilling out, and slowing down. (And we’re taking our own advice: The SELF staff will be OOO during this time!) We hope to inspire you to take it easy and get some
Spending long stretches of time with family can be…difficult, and this even holds true for those of us who have good relationships with our relatives! I love my parents, and we usually get along wonderfully, but spending the holidays at their house is usually the furthest thing from “restful.”
They’re incredibly social people, especially during the lead-up to Christmas. They host multiple (large) holiday gatherings every December—all of which involve tons of prep—and they’re constantly meeting up with friends and acquaintances even outside of their parties. My social battery, on the other hand, isn’t as strong as theirs are: I occasionally have close friends over for a glass of wine, but I don’t host guests nearly as often as they do, and I spend about six out of every seven weeknights curled up on my couch with a good book. It doesn’t take long for me to feel physically and mentally exhausted when I go home for the holidays.
The holidays can feel emotionally draining for a number of other reasons, too. The season can resurface feelings of grief for anyone who’s lost a loved one, Susan Albers-Bowling, PsyD, a psychiatrist and psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic, tells SELF. It can also be difficult to spend time with family if you experienced childhood trauma, or if you simply don’t feel close to your family, Justin Puder, PhD, a psychologist based in Boca Raton, Florida, tells SELF.
“It’s taxing, because a lot of us do feel obligated to spend time and interact with people we don’t have close relationships with,” Dr. Puder says. “We think, Oh, it’s family, we’re supposed to be close. But just because it’s family doesn’t mean you have a lot in common with them.”
You may have to be intentional about actually resting during your time with family over the holidays, especially if you usually have a hard time relaxing around your relatives. Below, you’ll find expert tips on how to survive—and thrive—during this time together.
Don’t hesitate to break with tradition.
Many families have holiday activities that they do every single year. My family and I always pick out and decorate our Christmas tree together, deliver baked goods to family friends, and have a celebratory dinner on Christmas Eve. If your family is similar, it might be difficult to suggest changes to the routine, even if you know it’s in your best interest to scale back a bit
But if it would do you good to skip a traditional family activity or two, communicate that to your loved ones. “You may get some pushback because change is hard for everyone,” Dr. Albers-Bowling says. Ultimately, though, it’s worth sitting something out if you know it’s going to do more harm than good.
Instead of focusing on what’s changing—the fact that you won’t be participating in a certain event or tradition—reframe the conversation around what you need to feel your best, Dr. Albers-Bowling suggests. You could start the conversation by saying something like, “This year, I’m going to sit this one out because I need a bit of break to recharge, but I’m excited for the other moments we’ll have to spend time together.”
Be honest about your needs.
Your priorities probably look different than they did when you were growing up. You may value getting fresh air and exercise; eating in the way that feels best to you; or spending your mornings meditating more now than you did the last time you lived with family members.
Your loved ones may not know how important particular habits are to you, and this could lead to problems if they don’t respect or anticipate the time or space you need to take care of yourself. Be clear about what you need up front, Dr. Puder says. He recommends talking openly and honestly with your family about what you have to do to feel your best, mentally and physically, during the holidays. “It’s always helpful to be authentic and speak your truth—to say, ‘This will make me be the best version of myself,’” he says. “It’s not selfish to keep your normal routine. In fact, it’s a priority.” If you don’t do this, you’ll likely regret it, he adds: “You’re going home for the holidays, and you completely abandon the things that regulate you—how are you likely to feel post-holiday?”
Plan to do even more self-care.
Long stretches of time spent with relatives or in-laws can be draining. Before you see them, think through your favorite de-stressing activities. Ask yourself what helps you feel peaceful—a nice, hot bath; going for an afternoon stroll with your dog; spending an hour or so reading a book; or just zoning out by watching Netflix in the evening.
Make a plan to stretch those activities out a little during the holidays. As Dr. Albers-Bowling recommends, “Do a little bit of extra self-care, recognizing that emotions can run high.”
Find an ally.
Seeing family can be isolating, Dr. Puder says, especially if that’s been your dynamic with your relatives in the past. Even if you only see family for a day or two, feeling like the “different one” can be emotionally exhausting.
If this rings true for you, identify someone you can lean on during this time. “Find the family ally,” Dr. Puder says. “That is so imperative. A lot of times it’s a cousin or an aunt, but it needs to be someone who can help support you, so you’re not just internalizing this ‘all on your own’ feeling.”
Start with a mental list of the relatives who typically make you feel most seen or heard, then touch base with them throughout family time.
Think of family time as quality over quantity.
If you value the relationships you have with your relatives, but are usually too stressed to truly enjoy your time with them, follow a “quality over quantity” model this year, Dr. Albers-Bowling recommends. Instead of spending hours and hours doing a whole lot of nothing in your grandparents’ living room, initiate a one-hour family activity—like a really fun board game, a local hike, or trying a challenging recipe together—that will keep everyone super engaged and present and give you an out when it’s finished. With a little luck, this will give you the connection you’re looking for and allow you to rest up afterward.
As an adult, it may be more difficult to fully relax during your time off, especially with family in the mix. Be your own biggest advocate! Communication about what you need to stay mentally and physically well—with yourself, and with your family—is a great way to show up for yourself, and maybe even to help your relatives show up for you too.