How To Protect Your Energy This Christmas

Because sometimes a family Christmas isn't all sunshine and roses

Christmas with the family means something different to everyone, some love it, some hate it, and some avoid it altogether. Most of the time, no matter how well a family gets on, it isn’t always smooth sailing. 

Tiffs on Christmas day aren’t uncommon, whether it’s over the last turkey sandwich being eaten or a full-blown disagreement at the dinner table. You’re living on top of each other, personalities are going to clash, opinions are going to be shared and no matter how special it may feel at times, Christmas can be *extremely* stressful. 

For some people it’s a whole lot more than just everyday family bickerments that taints the day. As they say, you don’t pick your family and how they make you feel isn’t your fault either. Some people go home for Christmas with a pit of anxiety and dread, and with these feelings ahead of many, Christmas can be a really hard time of year. When we are used to choosing who and what we surround ourselves with in our daily life, this can all feel uprooted once you return to your childhood bedroom.  

“It’s important to question is Christmas an event that you are choosing to celebrate with your family or rather do you feel obliged to be there?” says Dr Susan Byrne managing director, lead therapist & clinical supervisor at Connolly Counselling Centre. 

If your answer leans more to the “obliged” side, Dr Susan says preparation is key. Have a plan beforehand if you have a feeling what certain things will impact your peace and try to combat it before it happens. This can include limiting time with particular family members if possible, reminding yourself that this ‘family’ occasion happens only once a year. And the most important one according to Dr Susan is to try to see the occasion from another’s perspective. “[This] can be really helpful. If Christmas is important to a particular family member, then it can help by trying to understand why it is an important event in the year for them,” she explains. 

Even those who are best friends with their siblings may find being reunited under the same roof straining. Sometimes it can seem like time has reversed and immature behaviours and old habits fall back into place. But, if you find certain people appear more irritable than usual about small things, there may be more to the story. Dr Susan says, “It is important to remember that everyone has something going on and Christmas can highlight personal issues for some people. Addictions, alcohol dependency, eating disorders, depression, anxiety still need to be managed during the Christmas period which is often challenging and upsetting.” 

The pressure to have the ‘best time’ over Christmas can get a lot for some people, especially if they have their own feelings about the holiday and what it brings up for them. Allowing the space to accept these feelings at that time of year is vital. 

“The idea that Christmas should be fun, and a joyous occasion regardless, is a misnomer. Christmas can be a painful occasion for some people, particularly if you have lost a loved one during the year. As people age, reminiscing about Christmas when they were younger, particularly remembering Christmases as a child can be sad. Similarly, remembering Christmases as a parent of small children can equally bring up good memories but laced with a tinge of sadness because those days are over. Time is not infinite for any of us and with that comes the feelings of our mortality and for some this can also be with feelings of regret and sadness. 

“Often it is more helpful to be honest with those around you and say: ‘look I’m not in form for Christmas this year because of A, B or C’.  Alternatively, you could try to say how you really feel about Christmas and what it means (or doesn’t mean) to you. Part of that conversation will undoubtedly involve the theme of expectations – those that are put on others (consciously or unconsciously) but more importantly the expectations that you feel are put on you.” 

Although these may be the kinds of conversations you’re dreading having with your family, perhaps it’s the perfect time to tackle things that you have previously wished you could say… 

Dr Susan says, “‘re-languaging’ can be powerful. Reflecting on the language that we use can create new ways of letting others know how we are and what we are thinking without offending anyone. Communication is key for understanding and engaging with others, even family members that irritate us. When we choose to use different words to communicate, it can have a significant impact and make such a huge difference.” 

Sometimes, all the polite language and attempts at healthy communication in the world gets lost on certain people. We cannot control them or their opinions or behaviour. We can only control ourselves.  There are times when protecting our energy might mean knowing when not to engage, even if it’s hard to bite your tongue. 

“Boundaries are very important – they are often seen today as the new self-care method. Healthy boundaries will determine how you interact with others, even difficult family members, and it will also keep you safe and mentally strong,” Dr Susan says. 

Even with all of that information to hand, it can get overwhelming in a busy household. Taking time for yourself, although tough, can be a huge help. Dr Susan highlights some ways to build space into a hectic day. Firstly, she says to not be afraid to say “no”. Which can be a tough one when it comes to family… “It is okay to say ‘no’ and explain that you are not able to meet every expectation. It can be empowering. You don’t have to give long explanations either. Keep it simple and short but polite.” 

Next up, just keep breathin’, “Remind yourself of the reasons you’re joining your family at this particular time of year and then take a breath and practice some ‘box breathing’. Breath in for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, breath out for 4 seconds and hold for 4 seconds. Repeat this 4 times. As you finish you will notice that you are more relaxed and that your attention has been taken away from the issue that was causing you distress or emotional upset.” 

Need to get out of the madness completely? Head outside for a short walk, Dr Susan says it can be a great distraction and anchoring exercise, “While it can be a challenge to extricate yourself from some family situations for lengthy periods, a short 20-minute walk can be immensely effective in stressful situations. Your mind will be clearer re-entering the environment that you previously felt the need to leave.” 

Finally, be careful how you speak to yourself. Our brains can be negative and judgmental and we are the last people who need to be that for ourselves. Dr Susan explains, “Positive self-talk can be the more compassionate voice we listen to, telling us that ‘it’s okay’, that we are only human, and that life is precious.” At this time more than ever, we need to hear that.  

Your energy is just as precious as the occasion at hand, keep this in mind when you find yourself in situations you wouldn’t call your ideal; take a minute and remember your peace is worth protecting.