The holiday season is supposed to be all about family—and many of us envision family gatherings as peaceful and heartfelt as Hallmark ads. But most of us have much more complicated lives, with many sources of family friction—often with roots in our childhoods. And that disparity itself can be a source of stress. "It's called cognitive dissonance," explains Dr. Alan Keck, a psychologist from Orlando. "The tension we feel inside is the difference between what we think should be the ideal and what the reality is. The drive for people to try and achieve that ideal is the source of a lot of misery."
So here's our first tip for surviving the holidays with those near and maybe not so dear: don't expect life to imitate art. Here are eight more suggestions for getting through the season with your mood relatively intact:
1. Take care of yourself first. This may seem selfish and not in the spirit of the season, but it's actually the first step toward making sure that everyone around you has fun, too. With so much going on, "regular stress-management techniques go out the window," Keck says. But this is the time when you need those strategies more than ever. Make sure you're eating right and getting regular exercise. Don't skip the gym. "Whether you are a host or a guest, allow yourself some time alone," advises psychologist Terri Apter, author of The Sister Knot. "Go for a walk, phone a friend, read a book." If you are a host, don't wear yourself out trying to make every meal perfect. "Ask for help," Apter says. "Guests are usually very keen to pitch in. Use this good will to your advantage."
2. Don't sweat the small stuff. "No celebration is perfect and mistakes will happen," says Dr. James (Chip) Long, a Little Rock psychologist. "I encourage people to try to take things like a lopsided Christmas tree, a burned turkey, or a dropped plate full of food in stride and realize that these are the memories that will probably stick with us, whether we like it or not." And they're often the best stories, many years later. In the long run, what matters is how you and your family react to these small mishaps. For example, if people pitch in to clean up the mess from the dropped plate, you've turned a problem into an opportunity to work together.
3. Be clear about what you want. We're not talking about the gift list here. A huge source of tension among couples is the battle over whose family to visit. "It's important to be assertive about what you do and don't want and to set limits about that," says Keck. "Do it firmly but do it gently." One idea is to spend alternate years with each family. If the families are close by, you can try something like spending Christmas Eve with one and Christmas Day with another. Think about what particular part of the season matters most to you and your family and try and make that a priority. You don't have to win it all. You should not be afraid to limit the amount of time you spend in particularly stressful family environments, says Long. Leave early or come late and make a plan for leaving separately from your partner if it seems as if things are escalating. Long advises agreeing on a signal with your spouse or significant other that you need help to get out of a situation.
4. Don't try to resolve long-standing disputes. "My advice to people is that this is not the time," says Keck. "It's the 11th hour … Maybe they can put it on their agenda for next year so that by the next holiday season, they can move ahead with a clean slate." In the meantime, do what you can to avoid direct confrontation. Making the holidays a time to settle grudges defeats the whole purpose of getting together. "Everyone is so busy these days that it is getting more and more difficult to find the time to slow down and enjoy the many blessings that each of us has in our lives," says Long. "For this reason, I encourage people to try and stay focused on what the season means to them, and to engage in behaviors that are consistent with those beliefs rather than trying to force the holidays into being something they are not."
5. Be a grown-up. You're back in the family home, maybe even sleeping in your old bedroom. It's easy to regress to the role you had as a child. That's not healthy if it also means getting angry all over again about old issues. "It's important for people to be aware of that dynamic and make a point of staying in their adult state of mind," says Keck. Not all childhood roles are negative, of course. "Some people may find it reassuring to fall back into those patterns and be the little sister again," says Apter, "and be dependent on the older brother or sister." If there isn't any tension or unresolved issue, then it's not a problem to slip back into old patterns—just for a little while.
6. Remember it's the thought that counts. The exchange of presents is always tricky. Your in-law may think she's found the perfect gift, but you are appalled by her offering. "Try to keep the value of gifts in perspective, whether you are the giver or the receiver," says Apter. Most of the time, people are genuinely trying to please; if they fall short, just say thanks and move on.
7. Avoid the good-behavior syndrome. We have so much invested in the holidays and we try so hard to make everything as nice as it can be. It can be overwhelming. "Those awful bust-ups come when people have been trying too hard to behave perfectly," Apter says. "They end up feeling frustrated and offended because they have to 'walk on eggshells.'" Instead, try and relax and remember that you don't have to be perfect all the time—just good enough.
8. Stay sexy. With all that's going on this time of year, it's easy for couples to let their love life go. Big mistake. "A healthy sexual relationship is a good stress reliever," says Keck. So try not to be too busy or too tired for romance.