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Managing Estranged Relationships during the Holidays

There is a universal message heavily ingrained in our society for people to set aside their feelings for the sake of a peaceful and joyous holiday season with loved ones. Some of the common phrases you might hear are: “forgive and forget,” “be the bigger person,” “swallow your pride,” “they are family/your friend,” or “they might not be around much longer.” While these messages can be well-intentioned with the hope of trying to gather all of your loved ones for holiday gatherings, they can pose serious risks to those experiencing estranged relationships.

An estrangement is a separation between loved ones (friends or family) that usually happens because a violation of trust or a conflict has occurred due to experienced traumas, events, or abuse that changed the nature of the relationship. Examples that lead to estranged relationships are invalidating experiences or feelings, being unsupportive about personal choices, participating in destructive or unsafe behaviors, using manipulation tactics, and many more. During the holiday season, there is an emphasis on making amends, but there is not always an opportunity for loved ones to repair their relationships.

If you choose to go to an event where your estranged loved ones are present, take the time to consider the options available to you, and reflect on whether or not it may be a good decision for you to go. “When someone with an estranged relationship attends a holiday gathering, they are potentially exposing themselves to the person or people who might have caused them trauma or abuse,” says Kala Hight, Therapist at Centerstone. “The risks of reliving the trauma or getting triggered by the person being present are extremely high, and, as a result, the outcome of recovering from that might affect the person for much longer than the holiday season.”

Unfortunately, the holidays generate tension and stress for many people, but learning ways to practice mindfulness can positively impact your wellbeing and mental health. It is even more important to utilize these tips for those that might not have the option to miss out on those holiday celebrations:

  • Establish boundaries. It’s difficult to disappoint loved ones but creating boundaries can benefit you during the holidays and throughout the year. Know what limitations you might have, and know when it is time to leave. If it makes you feel at ease not to be around a specific person or people, suggest other timeframes to celebrate with your loved ones that might eliminate the existence of those triggers.
  • Create a safety plan. If you choose to go to holiday events, create a strategy that will keep you safe if a person or people are there that might trigger you. “Think about how much time you want to spend in that environment, and consider where you want to sit or if optional seating is available to help you mentally prepare,” says Hight. “Learn to recognize when your stress becomes unbearable, and know what to do when that environment is no longer beneficial to your wellbeing.”
  • Practice mindfulness. Notice your feelings and thoughts. Be intentional and mindful of those emotions and how they impact you. An example would be removing yourself from a situation or event where you might feel anxious or begin to experience other trauma-related symptoms. Rather than remaining in an unsafe space, utilize mindfulness techniques to focus your energy and take note of what you might feel.
  • Start alternative traditions. Sometimes visiting family or other loved ones is not a safe option. For some, it might be an invalidating experience, and having another means to prioritize your wellbeing is the best practice. It’s okay not to go and start a new tradition with people you trust. Find other ways to celebrate the holidays with safe people you connect with and love.

The holidays are intended to be a time filled with joy and peace, so try to avoid compromising your wellbeing if it means reliving trauma or being in uncomfortable situations. Remember that it is okay to say no to protect your wellbeing.

If you or someone you know with an estranged relationship is struggling with their mental health, Centerstone can help. Call 1-877-HOPE123 (1-877-467-3123) for more information about our counseling services.

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