Navigating Family Gatherings When You’re in Pain

tips for navigating family gatherings when you're in painDuring my drinking days, there were holiday seasons when I was really struggling. I remember being so anxious about what was going on in my life and so ashamed about my drinking that I really didn’t feel like talking to anyone.


With the holiday season upon us, so are the joys unique to this time of year. But if you’re struggling with depression, anxiety, if you’re reeling from an intimate betrayal, dealing with an addiction, or whatever, the holidays can be a tough time of year.


Family gatherings can present challenges. How do you deal with your family, who may have contributed to your pain in the first place? How much do you tell about what’s going on for you? Let’s take a walk through some ways of navigating family gatherings when you’re in pain that might help, no matter what’s going on in your life.


Have a game plan

As the Boy Scouts’ motto goes, be prepared. Think about who is going to be at the gathering and what it will be like for you. Consider what you want that time to be like, and if you want to do to make that time the best it can be.


Having a game plan is especially important if you’re in the throes of a marital or relational crisis. Without adequate preparation and thoughtful reflection beforehand, one partner may say something in anger to other family members about what’s going on. Usually this only makes a painful situation worse.



Who are you going to talk to? How much would you like to say about what’s going on in your life? Deciding who to tell and how much is a critical step in preparation for family gathering.


Boundaries work two ways: You can keep fully “zipped up” with others that don’t feel safe to you; doing so prevents them from getting in but also helps you from stepping beyond your boundary.

Sticking to your preparatory plans is one way of thinking about boundaries. Boundaries are simply a means of referring to who you let “in” and how much you let that person know about it.


One helpful image for thinking about boundaries is imagining a barrier between you and others that has a zipper on it. You can keep fully “zipped up” with others that don’t feel safe to you; doing so prevents them from getting in but also helps you from stepping beyond your boundary. So, boundaries work both ways.


If you do want to let someone in, you unzip a little and just enough that you’re okay with. It can be a conscious choice with preparation and forethought instead of something that just happens.


Practice Self-care

Finding activities and practices that fill you up and give you life are excellent ways of caring for yourself. Self-care is especially important in stressful and potentially difficult situations. And it’s super important when you’re struggling with painful feelings.


Think of it this way: With self-care, you’re building your emotional “muscles” so that you can deal with painful feelings better. This can take time and practice, so be gentle with yourself. Building these muscles over time can help for experiences like family gatherings, which for some with difficult family relationships, much easier.


Put Your Best Face Forward

Sometimes the best offense is a good defense. Not that family gatherings are a battle, but being with others who have deeply hurt you in the past can be extraordinarily painful and can bring up past hurts.


You can make a decision to simply be as courteous and polite with as you can be with everyone while holding good boundaries. If you’re struggling with painful feelings that feel overwhelming, a family gathering may be the last place you want to go.


But putting your best face forward can actually be a form of self-care: You’re deciding not to retaliate if your dad is as abrasive as he’s been in the past, or you’re simply going to smile and politely disengage if your sister goes there or says that again. You can choose not to allow that energy to affect you.


Say “No”

If all else fails, saying “no” is often the most loving, authentic thing we can do for ourselves and with others.


Imagine it. What would happen if next time you didn’t want to agree with someone or do something, instead of doing what you feel pressure to do, you said, “That doesn’t work for me”?


In saying no with respect and love (that is, not out of spite, anger, or some other way of expressing your pain), you’re holding good boundaries and honoring your emotional truth.


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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.

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