‘Tis the season of joy, laughter, and festive gatherings—a time when twinkling lights and familiar carols fill the air. But for many of us, the holiday season brings more than just cheer. It can stir up a whirlwind of typical happy emotions, and also more difficult and complicated ones such as fear, resentment, overwhelm, and grief.
When it comes to Holiday safety, let’s be honest. Most of us already know all about the dangers of overloading extension cords and the hazards of deep frying a turkey. But what about emotional safety? Do you have a plan in place to protect your emotional safety during this time of merriment and festivity?
The Need for an Emotional Safety
If you don’t yet have an emotional safety plan in place, you’re not alone. In all honesty, most people never even think about emotional safety. Nor do they even realize they need one or that they have the power to create one.
My Own Story
Many years of my life were spent looking forward to cherished holiday traditions. We LOVED going to Grandma’s house every Christmas Eve. It was a magical time and she always made it extra special for everyone.
As happens in the course of life, though, things changed. First of all, we all grew up. As we did, the family grew exponentially as new members were added. It wasn’t long before Grandma’s cozy house was bursting at the seams when we all arrived. Unfortunately, family tensions also started to mount over the years. And, though we never realized it as kids, Grandma got older just as we did. As with all good things in life, they eventually come to an end.
My mom put in a lot of effort and did her best to carry on many of those traditions with just our smaller, but also rapidly growing family. I have many wonderful memories of those gatherings, too! Yet, there was always an underlying feeling of tension, like “something that was off”, but I just couldn’t put my finger on it.
No one else seemed to have a problem, though, so we just went along and loved it as best as we could. Maybe it was just me being ridiculous? Maybe I was just imagining things? This is all I’ve ever known and this is how all families are, right?
Then my own kids came along. Woah! Was that ever an eye-opener? Especially when my trauma kids joined our family, the sheer overwhelm of the events became strikingly obvious.
Once loved holidays and cherished traditions became an absolute nightmare for us. The only way they could express their fear-driven thoughts and emotions was through very negative behaviors (screaming, raging, self-harming, kicking in walls, that kind of stuff.) Those behaviors increased significantly every time an event drew near. By the time we arrived at the gatherings, we were completely exhausted, often late, and running on adrenaline and ramped up nervous systems that no one appreciated.
I wish I could say that our story ended happily and everyone recognized and embraced our need to do things differently, but it didn’t. Expectations only grew stronger, judgment became more prominent, hostility and frustration towards us for rocking the boat and changing the atmosphere increased, and demands that we do and say and be things that didn’t even remotely align with our life, our values, or our beliefs (and that we knew would cause huge problems with our kids) skyrocketed…and they did so until we couldn’t do it anymore, we finally broke, and everything came crashing down around us.
What I Wish I Would Have Known
Much as I still love my family and all the once-cherished traditions of the holidays, I wish I would have and could have seen much sooner that nothing was ever going to change. Much of it was an illusion, and my expectation that anyone would see us, understand our life or our needs, or accommodate us was only adding to the fire.
I had no idea at the time that emotional safety was even a thing…and in fact, had been repeatedly told by therapists that I needed to just “sit with my feelings” or “radically accept” the situations for what they are and accept that just who they were, so figure out how to release your feelings, get over it, and make it work. Yet no matter what I did, I just couldn’t do it.
Knowing what I know now, I will tell you those therapists were wrong. Instead of calling it what it is and offering any kind of tools or resources to help change or combat the problem, they only fueled the idea that it was my responsibility to accept and fix emotional and psychological manipulation and dysfunction on their part. That’s why I could never do it. It wasn’t just my problem nor something I could fix on my own without losing myself or selling my soul.
Assessing the Emotional Landscape
I know I’m not alone in saying the holiday season can be a rollercoaster of complicated emotions. Where there is joy, there is also sorrow. Where there is love, there is also grief and loss. Where there are expectations, there is also resentment and frustration. That’s just the way of things.
For those who have experienced significant trauma, it becomes crucial to approach the holiday season with intention and self-care. Triggers are going to abound and the pressure to conform to societal expectations will always be there. And, the truth is that you’re not being ridiculous! If something feels off, it probably is. Even if the same things happen in a lot of families (which they do), that doesn’t make it “normal” or okay. If someone is dismissing or minimizing your feelings and needs, especially in an attempt to satisfy their own, they’re probably gaslighting you. You don’t have to accept any of that!
What Can Be Done?
There are things that we can do to get through the season with ourselves, our sanity, and our souls still intact. That starts with creating your own emotional safety plan and mapping out how you’re going to navigate the looming events and situations in a healthy way. You also don’t have to completely avoid people or situations or events in order to get through them and enjoy the holidays.
Outlined below are some of my favorite tips for creating a safety plan that works for you and your family.
Crafting Your Holiday Safety Plan
1. Safety First…Always
Safety always wins. It matters for everyone, and emotional safety matters as much or more than physical safety. It’s more important than tradition. It’s more important than Aunt Mildred’s expectations of perfection, compliance, or bliss. Listen to your inner voice and trust your instincts. If a situation or event doesn’t align with your well-being, it’s okay to say no. You deserve safety and peace, and so do your kids!
2. Establish Clear Boundaries
Establish and then clearly communicate your boundaries to yourself and others. Establishing boundaries is an act of self-love and self-preservation. They’re not mean. They’re not rude. They’re all about you knowing your worth and what you will and will not tolerate. Once they’re set, be sure to enforce them as well. That’s how we teach others how we want to be treated.
3. Feel Your Feelings
The holidays are an emotional time, and our emotions are the spark of life, even when they’re complicated. It’s okay to laugh. It’s okay to cry. It’s okay to be exhausted and have nothing left to give to anyone else. Just because something big happened, doesn’t mean you have to feel or even act a certain way. There’s no reason to feel guilty for enjoying life in the face of terrible loss.
4. Have an escape plan and exit strategy
Before ever going into an event or gathering, plan out a place and way where you can go to step away from all the festivities for a bit, take a breather, and allow your nervous system to calm down before going back and rejoining the fun. Also, prepare an exit strategy so you can leave the event with grace when you need to do so. Will it be at a certain time, when you start to feel a certain way, or if something unpleasant starts happening? Know what you’re going to say ahead of time to gracefully say goodbye and be on your way.
5. Ditch the Need for Perfection
Perfection is overrated. Let it go. No one’s Christmas will be perfect. You might burn the dinner (or choose to not cook one at all!) Kids will be ungrateful. Relatives will be insensitive, and some people may never appreciate you or all the effort you put into trying to make things special. It’s all good. Roll with whatever comes how it comes and let it be what it is.
6. Create Your Own Traditions
If, like me, the traditions of the past no longer work for your current situation, make new ones. There are plenty of ways to celebrate! Just because someone else did it one way, or it’s been that way for 50 years doesn’t mean you can’t do it differently. Focus on experiences that resonate with your values and contribute positively to your emotional well-being.
7. Give Yourself a Present
Especially if there’s a likely chance no one else will do anything for you, get yourself a present! It doesn’t matter what it is. It doesn’t have to be big or expensive. Just make sure it’s something you love and reminds you of your worth and your own healing progress. By all means, wrap it up, put it under the tree, and open it on Christmas morning! Yes, you deserve it!
8. Maintain a Mindful Presence
Practice mindfulness to stay present in the moment. Mindful breathing exercises can ground you during potentially triggering or stressful situations, allowing you to navigate them with calm and resilience. Slow down, do less, and do what you need to do to keep your wits about you in the moment.
9. Drop the Rope
Choose not to engage in unhealthy dynamics. Just like a game of Tug-o-War, if there’s no resistance on your side, the game is over. Remember, you don’t have to participate in every argument you’re invited to attend. If they disrespect you or throw a fit, thank them for their opinion and then respectfully leave.
10. Let the Light In
This is a season of light. All the holidays at this time of year are celebrated with light. Christmas is literally a holiday that celebrates the return of the sun and its light after the Winter Solstice. For me, it’s also a season that celebrates the ever-present light of Christ in my life. Wherever you find your light, let it in, let it fill your life, and let it chase away the darkness.
As you can see, crafting an emotional safety plan for the Christmas holiday season is not about avoiding the festivities; it’s about approaching them with intention, self-awareness, and self-compassion. By honoring your own needs for emotional safety, setting clear boundaries, and doing things in a way that works for you, you empower yourself to navigate the emotional landscape of the holidays with resilience and grace. Remember, your healing journey is a continuous process, and this plan is your compass toward a Christmas season filled with authentic joy and connection.
Now it’s your turn. What are some of your favorite ways to honor your own needs for emotional safety? Share them in the comments!