How to establish a sense of home during the holidays, even if you’re not “going home”

The concept of “going home for the holidays” has always been fraught for me. While the feeling of being home during this special season might signal comfort and warmth for many people, my home life hasn’t always been so shiny. Don’t get me wrong, there were definitely times of laughter and love, but there was also a great deal of drama and dysfunction—as a family of four, we were plagued by unaddressed mental illness, codependency, and a lack of emotional honesty.

I’m in my late twenties now, and my sister, mother, father, and myself have all been living in different states with very separate lives for several years. While at times it can be difficult to consider how disjointed we really are, it can also feel awkward whenever we do re-congregate, especially during times that are supposed to be joyous and full of love.

While I’ve been working through some of my familial challenges in therapy, the holidays still bring on a wave of loneliness and disconnection for me, which Dr. Lauren Appio, a New York-based psychotherapist, says is common for many individuals.

“Just going into the holiday season and anticipating that you will be spending more time with your family can bring on increased anxiety and depression, even before you head home,”Dr. Appio tells HG. We get bombarded with images of happy and close families during the holidays, but for dysfunctional families, the home environment can easily make us feel on edge, causing us to worry about other family members’ feelings or behavior, and potential conflicts, she says.

Patrice Douglas, a marriage and family therapist, believes that “when having a challenging home life, visiting may bring back negative interactions or situations that occurred while there.” Returning home to an uncomfortable situation can cause challenging memories and unfinished arguments to resurface, stripping away your sense of safety and support.

Beyond this, people who don’t maintain relationships with their family or choose not to spend time with them must also face questions from colleagues and friends about where they plan to spend the holidays. Dr. Appio believes this can reinforce unnecessary pressure and the misconception that those with challenging family lives are “not normal,” causing further feelings of shame and alienation.

So, what can you do to manage challenging emotions around the holidays?

Emily Roberts, a psychotherapist and the author of Express Yourself: A Teen Girl’s Guide to Speaking Up and Being Who You Are, tells HG that it’s helpful to be aware of how you felt the last time you were home and create an action plan to help you get through it, ahead of time. For example, she suggests setting boundaries and considering things such as how long can you tolerate being there. “It’s okay if you stay 24 hours or if you want to stay with a friend—parental guilt is real, but being aware of your own boundaries and what serves you is the most valuable way to manage these experiences.”

“Be mindful about how much time you spend around [difficult family members]," she says. "I’ve had clients make a curfew or book a train ticket well in advance in order to reduce the time and tension they feel when they are with people who evoke intense emotions. Prepare in advance for your exit plan—it will help you feel more confident about your visit.

She also recommends making time for simple breaks and doing activities that can help you regulate your emotions and reduce intense feelings when visiting. For example, Roberts suggests taking solo walks, running errands, calling a friend, or doing some meditation.

Another important factor worth considering is that even though time spent with family may not be easy, most times your loved ones do want you there, they just may not have the ability to show you that in the way you deserve. “Don’t go into this year’s festivities with rose-colored glasses; it’s unlikely they’ve changed…[but you can] learn to adjust your expectations and standards accordingly,” offers Roberts.

If you’re not planning on heading home for the holidays this year or are looking to deepen your sense of belonging without relying on others to give it to you, Douglas suggests creating some of your own traditions. “Whether it’s a vacation [or] gathering at a restaurant or someone else’s home, you can create your own sense of belonging,” she explains. You can do things on your own that put a smile on your face during the holidays.

Roberts says lots of people have alternative holiday plans: “They do things with friends, go on vacations alone, do workshops to strengthen their skills, or have staycations.” During the holidays, it’s okay to do what’s best for your mental health, even if that means limited time with family or getting together at a later date.

Dr. Appio offers a few different ways to create a sense of home if you’re not going “home.” First, she says that creating our own traditions and routines with people we do feel good around can give us things to look forward to—but if you don’t have people or places where you feel a sense of belonging, she suggests joining a support group that can help you connect with other people with similar values. She also says getting out into nature can make you feel awestruck by your surroundings and give you a sense of gratitude, so try planning a solo camping trip or even just going for a daylong hike. Another thing she recommends trying is volunteering. “It is an incredible antidote to depression and loneliness. You become part of the community you serve and the people you serve alongside,” she says.

Lastly, it’s an important time to make sure we’re treating ourselves well. “Up your self-care and pay attention to those behaviors that masquerade as self-care but really just numb you out,” Dr. Appio says. “Be sure that you’re eating regularly, well-hydrated, moving around, and spending time doing things that feel playful and restorative.” And if you find yourself dealing with these struggles year after year, it could be time to seek out professional guidance on how to heal and move forward.

Though the negative elements of my childhood and family life seemed to outweigh the happier moments for a long time, these days I’m trying to deepen my sense of belonging in new ways, and also create space for new, healthier relationships with my family members. I now realize how many different things I can do to make the holidays feel warm and fuzzy on my own.

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