The Secret to Staying Sane this Christmas (Around Our Crazy Families)

Posted by on December 19, 2013 in True Self | 10 comments

The Christmas season can be a truly joyful time of year, but it can also be stressful for those of us spending the holidays with families who push our buttons.  

all_misfit_toys_welcome_here-1According to Charles Whitfield, author of “Healing the Child Within,” 80 to 95% of us grew up in dysfunctional families. Well, pour yourself some eggnog, snuggle up under a warm comforter, and read on to learn how to keep from going crazy this Christmas.

Do you remember the island of misfit toys in the TV special “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer?” This sanctuary of unwanted toys was home to such rejects as a Charlie-in-the-box, a polka-dotted elephant, a bird that swims instead of flies, a cowboy who rides an ostrich, a train with square wheels, and a squirt gun that shoots jelly.  If these fabulous creatures were ever to take a creativity workshop from me, I’d instantly give each of them an A+ for originality and inventiveness.

imgresI’d also give you an A+ for being YOU.  Right now.  Just the way you are.  Period.  Sure, you could always improve.  But the most important thing you can do to stay happy and centered, no matter what happens this holiday season, is to accept yourself exactly the way you are.  Yes, even if your mom yells at you because you’re “selfish” for not making the type of cranberries SHE likes to eat.

What’s the secret to staying sane? Dysfunctional people don’t see YOU.  They see who they think you are.  So it really doesn’t matter what they think of you, does it?

TheCatLet me put on my professor hat for a moment and explain why self-acceptance works so well in such situations. Take the phrase “THE CAT,” written in a funky way here.  Even though the character for the “H” and the “A” is the same, it looks like an “H” in the word “THE,” and an “A” in the word “CAT.”  But, if a Martian were to beam down to earth who can’t read English, it would seem like the same squiggle in both cases because it IS the same squiggle!  The bottom line is, the way something or someone looks to us depends on what we’re evaluating it against. It’s called a “context effect.”

1452583_657608887613306_1760522448_nNow, what does this have to do with dysfunctional families?  Well, what’s wrong with a squirt gun that shoots jelly?  Or a bird that swims? Or an ostrich-riding cowboy?  NOTHING.  It’s only when we compare these toys to what we think they SHOULD be doing that they seem defective. In the same way, dysfunctional families measure you up against the you they think you should be, so it’s no wonder you always come up short. It’s not a reflection on the real you; you’re a squiggle, remember?  Some folks will love you just the way you are; some won’t.  You don’t need to change a thing.  Just be the squiggle that you are.

So if you’re sitting around the Christmas dinner table this year, and your aunt asks you to pass the mashed potatoes with a harsh tone that implies you’re too “fat” to be giving yourself a helping, take a breath, smile, and don’t play the game.  Embrace yourself, warts and all, and eat those mashed potatoes with glee. Even if you want to lose weight?  Yes.

original_misfits_signThe wonderful side effect of self-acceptance is that those little things you want to improve about yourself tend to right themselves effortlessly. Self-hate keeps you stuck.  Self-acceptance heals. ‘Tis the season to love yourself just the way you are.

I hope you have a beautiful and fulfilling holiday!


  1. Totally agree! Self acceptance is key. In addition, the problem with families is that it is sooooo easy to revert to the dysfunctional role you used to have as well as the dysfunctional roles they used to have. There’s very little chance to be any different with each other. They remember you a certain way, and you remember them a certain way. It takes a lot to step out of that box and be your true self.

    • It really does, Maria, and that’s why I felt so compelled to get this blog out this year. Unraveling those roles can take years of hard work, and they still come back during the holidays sometimes anyway! So the best thing to do is give yourself a big hug every chance you get, and be aware of what’s going on, and try not to take it too seriously.

  2. Perfect timing! And so helpful. I wonder why self-acceptance is soo easy to forget during the holidays. But you’re right it’s the perfect antidote.

    • I think it has something to do with state-dependent learning, Hannah. If you study for an exam in the same room you take the test in, you’re likely to score higher than if you studied elsewhere, because the room itself becomes a retrieval cue. This works against us when we come in contact with families we haven’t seen in a while. It’s almost as if they become a retrieval cue for you, and you become one for them. The way you felt and acted with them years ago comes flooding back, because the “state” or context is the same. So… breathe… relax… and take frequent breaks if you can. A walk outside can do wonders to shake this stuff off!

  3. In college,my youngest sister had three roommates, two of which were nice and one of which was mean. Whenever the mean one would say something in character, my sister would just smile and say, “Thank you for sharing.” This made the mean girl even more angry, but there was nothing she could do.

    Sometimes I have to visit relatives whose taste in music doesn’t match the kind I make, who don’t want to hear about my struggles and triumphs, and with whom I generally have nothing in common. I do what you recommend, which is basically to not let it get to me. You expressed the mindset well.

    • Thanks Rebecca. My brother has never listened to any of the 8 CDs I’ve released because he’s not really into the kind of music I do (likes classical music more). I used to let it get to me, because I do take an interest in what he does (he’s a physicist). Then I realized, I like supporting his work, and it just doesn’t matter if he isn’t into mine. His daughters have liked my songs over the years. He’s not in the same tribe. Best antidote to spending the Christmas holidays with families who don’t value what you do is to spend time with your tribe, or family of choice, immediately afterwards!

      • I’m fortunate in that my favorite tribe member is nearly always with me–Gary of course! That takes the edge off of any lack of acceptance I get from other people.

        My brother isn’t really into the kind of music I make either. He’ll listen to it if I’m playing it for other people or if I ask. But one of my recent songs has a verse about him in it–he’s a sung hero! I sent him the lyrics, and he replied, “That was very thoughtful of you.” He’s a man of few words.

        • It’s so cool that you married a tribe member! And very cool that you wrote a song that includes your brother. Rising above. Love it!

  4. I learned a long time ago to try to surround myself with those who saw my squiggle in a positive light, while distancing myself from the people who didn’t like my squiggle. During the holidays for many people that choice doesn’t exist. Luckily for me, most of the dysfunction in my family has been bled out and it is mostly a good experience. But for those who don’t have the good fortune, remember after the holidays to go back into your regular world and try to surround yourself with those that support you. Hopefully, that will make the distress of family disfunction less painful!

    • I totally agree. I’m glad you’ve found people who like your squiggle, John! I call them our tribes. The dysfunction has bled out of my family as well, but still, every once in a while, a button gets pushed. The best thing we can do is to surround ourselves with squiggle-lovers as often as possible, and accept ourselves the way we are, even when others don’t.

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