This time of year, we are bombarded with images and messages that suggest we should be loving every moment of the holiday season — and that everyone around us is doing just that.
Songs tell us “it’s the most wonderful time of the year” and that we should “have a holly, jolly Christmas” while “rocking around the Christmas tree.” Movies suggest families come together easily for a fun and rewarding few days, and while a few of them do portray conflict, it is done in a light-hearted way that always ends in connection and reconciliation.
Advertising and, increasingly, the social media posts of people you actually know, show only smiling families in matching PJs, laughing and enjoying the season.
However, the reality of normal lives and families is not quite as picturesque as what we see portrayed in the media. It’s not that these beautiful moments do not exist. Most of us are blessed to have relationships to cherish and special times to remember.
It’s just that these moments exist alongside many others — the times where we are bored, lonely, angry, uncomfortable, sad, confused, hurt or disconnected from our loved ones.
These other moments are normal and more common than the others, yet they are not typically the ones we share on social media or see on television. A fear that something is wrong with us or our families if we are not as joyful or conflict-free as the lives portrayed around us can cause unnecessary distress, especially this time of year.
Importantly, these false expectations for the season can actually increase awareness of loneliness, loss, conflict and imperfect relationships.
While we see “perfect” families around us, we are thinking of our own divorce, unrequited love, the children we could not have, the recent or distant loss of a loved one, and our struggles with parents, siblings, children or friends.
In other cases, the holidays create mixed emotions. There is excitement to come together with family, and we do enjoy beautiful moments and create new memories. But there is also conflict, tension, unspoken words, memories of past hurts or a longing for a deeper connection.
All of this is normal, and much more typical than the lives we perceive are being lived around us. Conflict is inevitable in relationships.
Sadly, it is not uncommon for conflict and disconnection to be even greater in farming families. There are a number of reasons for this, including the overlapping personal and business relationships, intergenerational hierarchy and divisions of assets, and the constant stress and heavy workload of farming, which can limit the opportunity for more leisurely interpersonal relationships both with family members and others in the community (which can buffer the stress that is a normal part of work and home lives).
So what can we do to have the best holiday experience, given our own unique circumstances? Here are a few suggestions.
1. Have appropriate expectations.
Conflict, imperfection and unmet expectations are the rule in families, not the exception. This does not have to be a pessimistic outlook, but instead can be used to help you appreciate the things you are grateful for in your family, friends and broader community.
Choose to focus on the strengths of your personal family and situation and to find ways to build on them.
For example, if you have a family member who is good at projects and not so good at conversation, plan a small project to work on together. Shift the focus to positive ways to connect and share time together instead of focusing on the frustration about the lack of communication and connection.
2. Do grieve and express negative emotions.
While not always encouraged culturally (especially for men), it is important to allow yourself to feel all of your feelings. Emerging research shows that suppressing or ignoring emotions creates long-term physical and emotional problems. It’s best is to allow emotions to come, to express them in the best ways we can (e.g., crying, yelling, writing, chopping wood) and then to move on. This is easier said than done, and many people work hard to ignore their emotions – but over time, this often leads us to be stuck in our grief, loss, frustration or anger more than we would otherwise. Loss and pain is a normal part of the human experience and the holiday season can heighten our awareness or memories.
3. Do count your blessings.
Research suggests that choosing to focus on our blessings and expressing gratitude regularly lead to improved well-being and reduced rates of mental health problems. This is a practice that we can all benefit from, no matter the loss or pain we are also experiencing.
4. Set boundaries and take care of yourself.
Relationships thrive when individuals are healthy and happy. This means that if you take care of yourself, your relationships and interactions will improve. This may seem counterintuitive (or even be against unwritten family or cultural rules), but I encourage you to experiment a little this holiday season.
If you are an introvert and it’s hard for you to be around a lot of people, consider stepping outside for a short walk, volunteering to run an errand, or even taking a few minutes away in another room.
If exercise is important to you, don’t skip your morning run; just make sure to communicate to others what you are doing and why it is important to you (and then make sure that it actually does help you engage more fully with family upon return).
If you have farm work that is weighing on you, have an open discussion about expectations for the gathering. Both work and pleasure are important, and talking openly about expectations for balancing work over the holidays can reduce angst and stress for all.
5. Avoid hot topics.
Because of the complex and often heightened emotions during the holiday season, difficult discussions should be avoided. If politics, religion or other topics can become contentious in your family, you may consider discussing boundaries in advance, using humor to focus on the positives of the holiday season and reduce the chance that difficult topics will lead to unnecessary conflict.
6. Limit alcohol consumption.
While alcohol can be a positive addition to social interactions in the short-term by reducing inhibitions, increasing positive emotions and easing social interactions, those same lowered inhibitions can increase aggression and create conflict if used in excess. Chemically, alcohol is a depressant, which means that even moderate alcohol use can exacerbate any underlying negative emotions.
7. Consider exploring local volunteer opportunities, especially if the holidays are difficult for you.
Many communities have community meals or other programs to help those in need, and participating in these community events can be very powerful experiences. Community, connection and togetherness are critical for well-being all year long and volunteering brings us together with other like-minded individuals and can help us focus on our blessings as opposed to our pain and losses.
Check with your local church or chamber of commerce or enter your location at https://bit.ly/366TjTe for opportunities near you.
In summary, in contrast to the media’s portrayal of the holidays as a time of ease and joy (only), complex emotions and experiences are typical and should be expected for the holiday season. Accepting this reality allows us to focus on and most fully appreciate the positives that exist in our families, friendships and broader communities.
Cheers to you and your family, and all the complexity, joy, and hope that this season can bring.
Dr. Lauren Welter is a licensed psychologist. She lives on a livestock and crop farm near Monticello, Iowa, with her husband Dan and their children Isaac and Clara. Contact her through her website, https://www.prairiehomewellness.com/.