Navigating Chronic Illness & Family Relationships over the Holidays

Nov 22, 2011

Navigating difficult family relationships over the holidays can be a challenge. No matter how close you and your family might be, it’s inevitable that conflict will arise. Here’s what you need to know to guard your health–and your relationships–over the holidays.

If you find spending time with your family over the holidays stressful recognize you are not alone. In his book When Difficult Relatives Happen to Good People: Surviving Your Family and Keeping Your Sanity, author and psychologist Leonard Felder reveals that research indicates 68 percent of those he interviewed found family functions “frustrating or unenjoyable.”

Face the Truth

One way to prepare for the holidays is to simply face the truth.

Families are complex living organisms made up of interrelated individuals. As much as you would like to resolve family conflicts and restore relationships, you cannot do it alone. It takes two to reconcile. What’s more, it’s hard work. For that reason, many people prefer living with the illusion of getting along rather than doing the hard work of cultivating healthy relationships. If they choose to pretend everything is fine even though you know otherwise, choose to live in peace, as much as you are able.

While your control over your family is limited, you can control how you respond to the challenges that arise.

Choose to Forgive

While it takes two to reconcile, it takes only one to forgive. And simply put forgiveness is a choice.

A scientific project conducted by the University of Wisconsin simply called “The Forgiveness Study” concluded that a failure to forgive is a greater predictor of physical health problems than hostility. A similar study conducted by Dr. Fred Luskin, the director of the Stanford Forgiveness Project at Stanford University revealed that those who learn how to forgive experience a significant decrease in the number of physical complaints.

One of the reasons people find it so difficult to forgive is that they have a false misunderstanding of forgiveness. Dr. Don Colbert in his book, Deadly Emotions: Understand the Mind-Body-Spirit Connection that Can Heal or Destroy You, says this:

Forgiveness does not require that a person minimize the validity of his pain, the amount of pain he suffered, or the importance of a painful experience. To forgive does not mean that a person is saying, “This didn’t matter” or “This wasn’t a huge wrong committed against me.” Rather it is saying, “I choose no longer to hold this feeling of unforgiveness toward the person who hurt me.”

“Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future,” notes Paul Boese.

While forgiveness is a choice, it is also sometimes a process. If you have deep emotional wounds and are unable to work through the forgiveness process on your own, seek the help of a therapist who can help you work through the pain to a place of forgiveness and emotional healing.

There is freedom in forgiveness. Don’t stop working for forgiveness until that freedom is yours.

Practice Good Self-Care

Continue good self-care during the holiday season even if it’s hard to do. Good self-care includes following your doctor’s treatment plan, accepting your limitations, pacing yourself, getting sufficient rest, asking for help from friends and family members, cultivating hobbies and habits that nourish your spirit and your soul, and maintaining a good sense of humor.

If family relationships are overtly hostile and contentious, it may be necessary to avoid certain family members to preserve your health. Difficult? Yes. But it might be what you need to do to preserve your physical and emotional health. By pushing yourself physically and emotionally to meet others’ expectations during the holidays, you set yourself up for a serious health crisis.

Chris Tatevosian, author of Life Interrupted — It’s Not All about Me, points out that conserving your already compromised supply of energy becomes vital, because exceeding your allotted energy does not mean your body just slows down; it completely shuts down.

Is that a price you’re willing to pay for the approval of people who fail to love and respect you?

Think about it.

Draw Healthy Boundaries

Prior to a holiday gathering, determine what boundaries are comfortable for you. Are some family members so toxic that you should avoid seeing them altogether? Are you comfortable spending four hours with family members or two? At what point do you usually hit the wall? Can you handle some family members in a group but not one on one?

Plan to answer these questions before, not during, a family gathering.

When setting boundaries, don’t forget to set financial boundaries, too. Incurring large amounts of debt over the holidays is foolish. Instead of spending more money than you have, set a budget and stick with it. Also, consider contacting family members before the holidays to let them know you’re on a budget. This helps manage expectations and avoid disappointment when you finally sit down together to open gifts.

Talk about It

You can’t choose your family, but you can choose your friends. After the holidays, debrief with someone who loves you and understands you. If you have a friend who “gets you,” arrange to speak with her by phone within a few days of tour family gathering. You can meet in person to debrief in detail once everyone’s schedule returns to normal. Sometimes, just hearing a friendly voice on the other end of the line puts everything into perspective.

By putting these practical tips to use this holiday season, you can guard your health–and your relationships!