For many, the holiday season represents a time of “peace, love, and joy.” People travel to hometowns small and large for elaborate family feasts—and way too much dessert. However, for some LGBTQ people, the holidays can be a time of considerable stress and disconnection, particularly when attempting to engage with family members. With proper preparation, even the toughest situations can be handled in a way that preserves mental health and wellness, reduces anxiety, and promotes overall health.
Make a Plan
If visiting family members who are not accepting of your LGBTQ identity and/or lifestyle (or who may have a history of other kinds of toxic behavior), develop a strategy for your “rules of engagement.” This could mean visiting relatives at a particular time of the day or month, or limiting the number of days in your trip. For example, a morning or afternoon visit may be easier than a late-evening visit or overnight trip, since it suggests a lighter, more casual tone. Establishing with your hosts that you will be there for a pre-specified amount of time can allow you to more easily retreat, if necessary. You can always extend the visit if things are going well.
Sandwich visits with family between time with friends or other support persons to provide opportunities for decompression, and to remind you of who you are if you start seeing old family behavior patterns and roles emerging.
Finally, if there are particular relatives for whom you need to be on guard, it is alright to limit contact and prioritize your own well-being. Based on the particulars of your family, create a “visit agenda” that works for you.
Choose Your Battles
While some family members or friends may have a genuine desire to better know or understand you, engaging in a back-and-forth dinner debate with a hostile relative is not something you have to suffer through just because you’d like to make it to the second course. It is completely acceptable to excuse yourself from the conversation, from the room, or from the gathering altogether. But before giving up on them, try politely telling your family, “Let’s keep it about the holidays,” or simply switch to a more neutral topic.
Keep in mind that you can always engage a curious individual in a tough conversation without the additional eyes and ears of your entire family present. If they’re really interested in having a true discussion, you can move it to a time and scenario that feels safe—and not when you’re under stress.
Have an Exit Strategy
If you are scheduled to spend the night in a family member’s home but suspect that you may need to make a hasty exit, make advance arrangements for an alternative place to stay, just in case. Take extra cash, should you need to get a last-minute hotel room. Keep your phone charged. The more thought you can give to how you might leave a tense situation, the more it can help to reduce overall anxiety and dread about a family visit. Remember that you don’t need to be trapped in a situation where you must suffer abuse.
LGBTQ people have historically been forced to create meaningful connections with many different kinds of people in order to survive. Keep in mind that “family” is defined in many different ways, and that you can find a community of people who understand and are around to support, uplift, and empower you when biological family is not available, or where relationships are toxic and no longer serve you.
With that in mind, here are some other considerations for managing the holiday season:
Nurture Your Support System
Take Care of Your Physical and Emotional Self
Focusing on one or two specific, attainable health goals for the season can help to provide some structure without the guilt. Perhaps you strive to gain only a few pounds, since cookies and cakes seem to be on every table at work and among family. Be sure to get plenty of sleep. Watch out for excessive alcohol and/or drug use. Remember that exercise, meditation, and water are your friends. If you’re taking medications, be sure to remain adherent to your regimen and have refills available so you don’t run out while traveling during the holidays.
Volunteering Helps Others—and Yourself
Consider volunteering or doing outreach in the community. There are many organizations that are looking for people to serve. If you are experiencing feelings of loneliness or disconnection, being of service to others can create feelings of connection and may provide an opportunity to meet other like-minded individuals who are interested in helping others.
Even during the holiday season, we can find ways to take care of ourselves in the midst of the swirl and find the peace, love, and joy that we all seek.
Daryl Shorter, MD, is a Diplomate of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology and is board certified in both general and addiction psychiatry. His clinical practice focuses on the use of psychotherapy and medications to treat mental health and substance use disorders. Dr. Shorter serves as the psychiatrist of record at The Montrose Center and lectures widely on LGBTQ mental health and wellness. Dr. Shorter can be reached at [email protected].
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