Carla Shuman Ph.D.

How to be more intentional about holiday activities and time with family.

Key points

  • Be intentional about how you spend your holidays and create your own traditions.
  • Take control of how you spend time with family to avoid unpleasant interactions.
  • Give yourself permission to stop seeing family members if they create a toxic environment.

Many people will travel to see family this year, while others will host relatives they haven’t seen in a long time because of COVID-19. This can be a very difficult time of year, regardless of whether we see extended family or not. But the added pressures of spending time with family, not all of whom we have close relationships with, can be emotionally exhausting. In some situations, it may even be a toxic environment. This post will help you think about how to be more intentional about your holidays and your interactions with extended family.

First, many of us love our extended families, and we want to spend time with them, but it’s hard to spend lengthy periods of time together. If this is the case, think about how to maximize the time with them so that you enjoy it more. Talking about subjects about which you disagree may not be the best way to have dinner. Instead, focus on each other and the times that you have missed together. Ask people what they have been doing, what’s new in their lives. Play board games together while you’re sitting in the living room instead of talking about politics. if you need a break, go for a walk or a drive to look at holiday decorations.


Sadly, some family dynamics are more than just annoying. During the holidays we might be expected to see family members who are emotionally unsafe to be around. They become verbally abusive, they use drugs or alcohol in our presence, which exacerbates their behavior, or they blame us for things that of happened in the past. If your family dynamics resemble one of these situations, rather than just the quirky uncle who likes to talk about his political views, there are additional steps you need to take to protect yourself emotionally from triggering interactions with others.

Give yourself permission not to stay in the presence of those who trigger sadness, anxiety, or other intense and painful emotions. If you notice that you constantly feel bad in their presence, they may not be a healthy relationship. You may need to limit your time around them, or even not see them at all. If nothing good comes from the interaction, you must prioritize your mental health and feelings of safety over what may be expected of you from other family members. Here are some signs that there are certain family members with whom you may need to limit your contact or eliminate it altogether.

  1. You leave the interaction feeling intensely sad, anxious or angry and unable to focus on anything else for an extended period of time.
  2. Interacting with this individual ruins your enjoyment of the holidays.
  3. The anticipation of spending time in their presence leads to significant anxiety.
  4. You don’t feel heard or understood by the person, and attempts to communicate with them in healthy ways are unsuccessful.

The holidays aren’t just about spending time with your family. Make the season your own by finding activities and traditions that you enjoy. If you are one of the millions who lost loved ones in the last year, you may not feel like celebrating at all this year, and that’s OK. You may want to take a vacation or a staycation that doesn’t involve anything close to what you usually do, and that is a great opportunity to do something for yourself. Or, perhaps you want to reinvent the holidays by creating your own traditions with your friends, partner, or children. Part of the healing process, and building resilience, involves finding experiences that bring you comfort and pleasure, even if they’re different from the ones that you had growing up.

The hype around the holidays being the most wonderful time of the year has been refuted by mental health professionals time and time again. Don’t feel pressured to have the commercialized experience you see in ads or in Hollywood representations of the holidays. Be intentional about finding the people who affirm you and bring you happiness. You still may not feel this is the most wonderful time of the year, but at least you can take care of yourself and feel at peace.

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