Why the Holidays Can Drive You Crazy (& What to Do about It): Part 3

Over the last couple of days, I’ve shared with you some of my thoughts about why spending time with our families can be stressful, sometimes enough to leave us feeling a little crazy. Feelings of anxiety, confusion, frustration, guilt, being blamed, and other “crazy” emotions when we’re with our families aren’t uncommon. In Part 1, I described how these feelings can result from relational trauma, which happens when we’re emotionally wounded, blamed for our pain, and shunned when we attempt to reconnect. In Part 2, I explained that we might also see these feelings as the outcome of subtle ways of being with our loved ones; the more discordant notes in a family’s melody, the more intense our crazy feelings often become.


Indeed, whether by relational trauma or ways of being in relationship with your family, the feelings you feel are probably frustratingly, even achingly familiar. But let me encourage you: Breaking out of the familiar and finding a different path is possible, though it will mean that you’ll have to take a few risks and try something new. How might you take steps to be with your family more intimately and authentically?


  • Pause to reflect on what you’re feeling. What “crazy” feelings feel familiar to you when you’re with your family? How do you hurt when you’re close to them? Do feel “pulled” to relate to your family in certain ways? Whatever your answers to these questions, chances are you feel these same feeling in other relationships too, because your family relationships (and your relationship with your significant other, if you have one) have a way of turning up the volume on your emotional pain. Maybe you’re not sure what you’re feeling, just that you’re really angry or unsure of what you feel. That’s OK. The important thing here is simply to pause to consider what’s happening emotionally for you. 


  • Recognize how you usually deal with those feelings. Emotional pain is like physical pain in that we react instantly when we feel it to find ways of soothing ourselves. If you touch a hot stove, of course, you’re going to pull away without thinking. So too with emotional pain. Usually, we wind up defensively blaming others for our feelings, feeling ashamed (that is, blaming ourselves), attempting to control others and change their behavior, and/or disconnecting from the pain (e.g., alcohol, addiction, TV).


  • Stay in the moment. Bringing up past hurts will only pour more fuel on the fire and can often function as “trump cards” that shut down conversations rather than expand dialogue and possible ways of being in relationship, which is what we’re after here. If you’re speaking with a family member and they play a trump card (usually they start with, “At least I never . . .” or “I’m not the one who . . .), they probably feel just as hurt and misunderstood as you do. Respond in a way that acknowledges the pain that he or she is attempting to express in the moment: “I know that what I did really hurt you, and I’m willing to talk about that. But I get the sense that you say that because I’m not getting something about how you’re hurting right now about what’s happening.”


  • Share what’s going on with you. Here’s where you’re really taking a risk, because now you’re putting yourself out there. You’re setting aside your usual defenses and being vulnerable now,  If this is new to you, you may not be sure about what to say. Try not to overthink it. Instead, say what you’re feeling and maybe how you’ve “danced” to that feeling before. “I am so frustrated! I know I’ve been angry like this before with you, and when I feel this way, I usually blame you for making me feel this way, and I’m not sure how to get out of this.” Saying something about how you’re feeling in a way that feels comfortable to you will shift the conversation from whatever you’re arguing about to the feelings that you experience when you’re arguing (which is what you’re really in conflict about anyway).


  • Invite your family member to share their feelings with you. Your vulnerability is powerful: If you even clumsily talk about what you’re feeling in the moment, just doing that will invite your family member to dance a to a different tune as well. It tells them that you’re ready to listen, willing to understand in new ways, open to other possibilities in the relationship, and that it might be safe for them to risk being more open with you. If they continue to argue, be patient; remember that they’re still hurting and don’t yet sense that it’s safe enough to shift with you.
Jeremy Mast

Jeremy is a licensed marriage and family therapist (CA LMFT90961) in private practice in Ventura, California. He helps those struggling with drugs, alcohol, and out-of-control sexual behaviors awaken to new possibilities for their lives. He lives with his wife, son, and cat in beautiful southern California.

  • Anonymous

    Amazing insight, Jeremy. It’s meaningful to feel it’s okay to wrestle with feeling triggered by unresolved issues in the family during the holiday season. I appreciate the tips and look forward to opening a honest dialogue within my self and family.

    December 31, 2014 at 2:14 pm

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