For some, the holidays are a time of year for joy and celebration. But for others, it can bring on unnecessary stress and tension, especially if you are struggling with mental illness. Everyone has a family member (or two or three) who spreads rumors, pushes buttons, or pokes their nose into other people’s business. Here are some tips on how to handle intrusive or rude questions and comments without causing a rift in the family.
- Change your expectations: This may sound cynical, but give up hope that your family will somehow magically change and become different or better people. If you accept them for who they are (for better or worse), you’ll be more prepared to handle anything they throw at you.
- Set boundaries for yourself: Before you return home or go to any parties, decide how much time you are going to spend with your family. You are allowed to set time limits and make these decisions. Don’t want to talk to your rude aunt all night? Give yourself permission to excuse yourself from any conversation. If you really feel uncomfortable around your family, you have the right to make an appearance and leave whenever you choose, or to not go to a family gathering at all.
- Don’t go to all of the parties: The holidays can be a really busy time, between juggling parties and trying to see everyone, which can lead to unnecessary stress. Choose just one party, or plan to see people another time. If group settings aren’t right for you, schedule one-on-one time with people.
- Don’t try to please everyone: It’s important to put yourself first and to not worry about pleasing everyone (or anyone!). If it’s too stressful or uncomfortable to visit family or go to parties, you don’t have to. Make an excuse if you need to. If people get mad, it’s not your fault. You can’t control other people’s emotions, just like they can’t control yours. If it’s better for you to not go, then don’t go.
- Make a decision and stick to it: It’s better to tell people in advance that you won’t be joining them for the holidays than to have them expect you and then not show up.
- Communicate your needs: If you are comfortable talking openly with your family, let them know what you need and how you feel. But be realistic with your expectations in terms of how they may react. Again, you can’t control their emotions or actions, so be honest and upfront, and do what’s best for you.
- You have a right to privacy: You have the right to share or not share information about yourself. If someone asks you invasive questions, you can say something like, “Now’s not the time to talk about it. I’d be happy to talk to you about it after dinner or another day.” Or if you don’t want to share at all, you can say, “Now’s not the best time to talk about it. I don’t feel comfortable sharing. But just so you know, I’m feeling better and working on improving myself.”
- Use this as an opportunity to reduce the stigma: If you want to educate your family on mental illness, tell your family what you’re going through. Remind them you’re still the same person (if you are newly diagnosed), and that your mental illness doesn’t change who you are or your personality. You have the freedom to set the boundaries on how much you want to share. You don’t have to go into detail if you don’t want to and can be generic. Also, focus on the future and how you are getting the help you need.
- Schedule alone time: If you do plan on seeing your family and going to parties, make sure you set aside time for yourself. You don’t always have to be around people. Have down time, both before and after the party, so you can prepare, decompress, and heal. Schedule an appointment with your therapist, or set aside time to debrief with someone you trust.
- Turn their negativity into positivity: It can be difficult for anyone to deal with rude or pushy family members. If someone says something negative about your illness, take their negativity and turn it into a positive so they don’t end up being offended (and causing lots of drama among the family). You can say, “I appreciate your concern. Just know that I’m doing OK and getting the help I need.” Or, “I’m glad you care about my health…” I know this can be hard to do. If you find yourself becoming too stressed or angry, remember you can excuse yourself from the conversation or party.
If you have mental illness, there’s nothing to be ashamed of. How your family views you or your diagnosis is irrelevant. Their feelings and opinions do not change you or your health. Whatever you decide to do, make sure you are doing what is best for you and your needs. If someone gives you a hard time for your decisions, express how that makes you feel. You can say something like, “I hope you can respect my needs. I know it may not be ideal for you or what you are hoping for, but I’m doing this for me. It has nothing to do with you, so please don’t take it personally. You don’t have to agree with my decisions, but know that it’s for the best.”
Holidays can be hard on everyone, so if you or a friend or family member is struggling with mental illness and needs additional support or guidance, Serenity Lane Psychological Services provides therapy so you can find inner peace and happiness. Contact Dr. Heather Violante to learn more.