Wow, what a year!  Like many of us, I’m shuffling towards a good rest and a hopeful pause.  With the new year just 4 weeks away, I’ve been reflecting with a sharper quality on just how massive 2020 has been.

In doing so, I’m recognising my reaction to this year has been a ‘heads down bum up’ thing.  Somewhat because it’s been needed, but primarily because I think that’s how I do hard things.  There’s some solid generational wiring around stoicism and ‘getting on with it’ in the ol’ noggin 

The curious thing is, in finally sticking my head to see the finish line in front of me, I’m noticing it hard to gauge how the usual Christmas/end of the year will unfold?  Perhaps this year it will have a different, more distinct flavour.  Perhaps kinder or more connecting?  There’s some evidence in this as I hear of many people linking up again with family or friends for the first time in many months.  Or perhaps it will be the pimple that bursts on what has been a stressful and complex time for many of us.  A time where Christmas can be another trigger for old wounds related to family, relationships, and belonging.

It’s certain to have the usual Christmas stress that shows up with the consistency of tinsel and the Boxing Day test, and that’s heightened as many people are emerging from the COVID epidemic, preparing to make up for lost opportunities.

Regardless of whether you are moving towards Christmas hand-in-hand or with alarm bells clanging, it’s always good to recap some important well-being strategies for this time:

Top 5 Christmas Well-being Strategies:

Aware-Planning:  Perhaps the most important Christmas well-being strategy is both an awareness of what is likely to get you in trouble (family conflict, grief, alcohol consumption, loneliness, etc) and making sure you are well-prepped in minimising, exposure too and situations that will activate this distress.  Any situation that you know affects your wellbeing, where you can plan to build in more self-support or support from others is really valuable.  Spaces and places where you can catch a breath, centre yourself, connect with an ally, find some kind words for you or others, all goes towards calming nervous systems and keeping us ‘wired in’ for wellness.

Example: If there is a conflict between family members that always flares up at Christmas, it could be important to plan how you have an ‘exit strategy’ for distancing yourself from the inevitable conflict.  Even if it’s being able to take a walk around the block or change locations in the home.  Perhaps there is also someone else in your family or friendships who gets it and cares…

Someone Who Gets it and Cares:  So important at this time of year to reach out to a friend, siblings, family member, partner, or lover who gets the situation and cares.  Leaning into them can make the difference between Christmas being a friend or foe, and break down patterns of loneliness or feelings of isolation that may infiltrate your wellness.  ‘Spec-ing’ up this person early and working on a plan together if things get tough is even more valuable.  This is where your support team can really get behind you in ensuring you’re going to be okay.

Example:  One couple I worked with agreed on code words and a certain touch that helped them let each other know when the other wasn’t coping with certain family dynamics.  At this time, they agreed on a private meeting place in the home where they could connect, regroup, refresh.  Sometimes this was an important hug and sometimes it needed some affirming words.  They used this collaborative approach to also help with setting boundaries and limits with their family…

Setting Boundaries That Count:  Considering Christmas as a friend will often include shoring up our boundaries and limits with family and friends.  Having firm boundaries in your relationships is a skilled way in being able to see the good qualities that others can offer.  Before Christmas, think about what boundaries you will need and will most serve you in minimising distress and disconnection. Questions like, “how much time should I spend with certain family members?  Should I/we limit some conversations to safe topics? Should I travel independently to certain events?” are valuable starting places in considering a different rhythm that supports your well-being.  

Example: Like many people in Australia, your family/friends may be traveling from out of town.  If you know that letting family members and friends stay at your home over Christmas always creates conflict and stress, it would be valuable in deciding and setting boundaries around a time limit on accommodation (or making alternative accommodation arrangements), agreed times apart doing your own thing, and deciding on who is doing what tasks and support roles in the home, etc.  Have these conversations in advance with your family/friendship stakeholders and get them agreed upon.  Sometimes it can be important in these discussions to decide how to deal with ongoing deficits in your connections…

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff:  If by Christmas you have already done some aware planning, enlisted someone who gets it, and set some good boundaries it’s going to be easier to not sweat the small stuff!  However, I wish it was that simple and there is oftentimes in the Christmas environment with the right ingredients where the small pieces of communication, actions, and relationship dynamics break the threshold of goodwill.  In these conditions, awareness is the key, and being aware of your own triggers and behaviours is critical!  Sometimes, we can really start to see how our own reaction fuels the discord.  Deciding when silence is wisdom or when assertiveness is a gift, can evoke our agency in changing the usual family or friendship dance steps.  

Example:  A very common experience within families and friendships is where someone feels like they are regularly criticised in ongoing snippets and reminders.  If this is your experience, make a mindful practice to reflect and embody your own values, worth, and opinions.  If choosing silence as wisdom, lean on your support team, and step out of the space to catch yourself and your breath.  If offering a gift through assertiveness do so from a wide perspective of kindness, knowing that your worth and life choices may equally be held by the other in opposite.  

How Much is Enough?:  Possibly one of the most familiar and consistent actions that I see drive disconnection at Christmas; across gender, generations, and relationship types is the use of alcohol.  If you know that alcohol is a cause of conflict in your family/friendship dynamics, it’s going to be important to utilise all of the above strategies to minimise the consumption culture through Christmas.  Plan early, set boundaries, get support around you, action, and agree with family members.  If needed, seek professional support to build ideas on minimising alcohol consumptions or sticking with cessation you already have in place. 

Regardless of how you approach the end of the year, or in how you choose to celebrate this time – or not, Christmas can be an opportunity to reflect on the range, scope, and quality of the relationships in our lives. It’s in the considering that there’s potential to take advantage of some of the above wellness strategies.  And whether Christmas becomes friend or foe, I’m recognising again that the discomfort of some family/friendship relationship holds room and potential for more tolerance, curiosity, and even enjoyment.

Sean Tonnet is a highly sort after relationship therapist, international educator and Clinical Director for Thrive Clinic Mullumbimby.  You can contact Sean through this website contact page or directly at connect@seantonnet.com.au or sean@thriveclinic.com.au