More than any other time of the year, the holiday season emphasizes family. Images of happy families gathered around a Thanksgiving feast are all over television commercials and magazines. Everyone seems to be making plans to be somewhere with family. However, reality often looks very different. For many of us, the idea of family and the holidays looks and feels very different than the Norman Rockwell painting on TV or in the magazine.
Going Home Isn’t Always an Option
The issue of family holidays can be problematic for a number of reasons.
Family relationships are fraught with emotional baggage based on years of history together. As children, our family or origin teaches us how to communicate, process emotions and get our needs met. (GoodTherapy.org, 2015) Much of the work of growing up and becoming who we are is done within the sphere of our family of origin. But for many of us, a lot of that development also happens outside that family of origin. Once we’re adults, returning to our family of origin after all the growth and change of adulthood may feel forced and unnatural. Old patterns may reemerge and cause us to act like the children we were, instead of the competent people we are. Our parents and siblings can simultaneously be the people we love and trust most in the world and the people we find it most difficult to please and impress. Add to that the societal emphasis on creating that Norman Rockwell image and the pressure can be unbearable.
The result is that many people don’t find automatic acceptance from their biological or ‘traditional’ families. Those families may still view us the people we were and fail to acknowledge the growth we have done. Spending concentrated time in close quarters with them can make you feel as though you are under a microscope where all of your perceived faults are magnified, resulting in more stress than support.
Beyond the awkward aspects of coming home, sometimes we literally can’t come home at all. Work commitments or lack of money to travel eliminate the possibility of creating that standard-issue holiday. Others may not have family at all in the traditional sense to be with during the holidays.
What is ‘Family’ Anyway?
You can have a happy Thanksgiving regardless of your family situation. Whether you choose to be with family of origin, with friends, with strangers, or even alone, letting go of that perfect Hallmark holiday ideal is the first step. Some magazine picture or TV show does not have the authority to define your family for you. Only you have that power.
“Sometimes it’s just healthier and more loving to let everyone have their space, until a better time comes for sharing one’s space,” writes Lauri Apple about choosing not to travel home to spend the holidays with her parents. “Sometimes it’s hard to reconcile one’s duty to family with the feeling that holidaying without them is best for everyone involved.” (Apple, 2010)
Imperfect holidays can be rewarding, too. “The best [Thanksgivings], I have found, have not necessarily been merry and delicious, but rather the ones when I learned something about myself by fully experiencing and taking ownership of what was true for me without blaming or judging myself or others,” writes Judith Johnson. “I just accepted and worked with whatever my truth and circumstances were.” (Johnson, 2011)
Because of that ubiquitous mythical idea of what makes a perfect holiday, people who don’t have that – by choice or circumstance – can feel even more isolated. If that is the case, reaching out to others can be very helpful. More and more, people are finding creative solutions to the family holiday dilemma by embracing the idea of spending Thanksgiving with people they haven’t known their whole lives, and even with people they barely know or don’t know at all.
The idea of the “orphan Thanksgiving,” where people with no place to go come together for a festive meal, is not new, but it has become so popular, it now has a more cheerful name: Friendsgiving. (Just Google the word and you’ll find many tips on how to do this.)
Gathering with friends, coworkers, acquaintances, or strangers can be liberating. There is far less history, baggage or drama. There are no expectations. In a surprising way, the people we meet simply traveling through life can feel more like family than the family we were born into. These people see you in the here and now as the person you are. They don’t know that old version of you from your childhood, the person you were. That fresh perception of you often acknowledges the growth you have done, and does not put the weight of past mistakes or flaws back on your shoulders.
Thanksgiving is all about recognizing the valuable things we have, including those relationships we have built and those people with whom we give and receive support, regardless of if you are biologically or legally related. Being with people who accept us as we are is a great way to feel that thankfulness and truly appreciate the holiday spirit. The family we create is no less valid than the one we are born into. And sometimes, it’s the family we create that lets us fully appreciate just how much we have to be thankful for.
If you would like to speak to a therapist about this subject or about any other issue you may be experiencing, contact the Maria Droste Access Center at 303-867-4600.
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GoodTherapy.org (2015) Family of Origin Issues. Retrieved on November 22, 2015, from https://blog.workhealthlife.com/2013/12/keeping-it-real-during-the-holidays-the-meaning-of-family/
Apple, L. (2010) Choosing to Spend the Holidays Away From Family Can Be an Act of Love. Jezebel. Retrieved on November 22, 2015, from: https://jezebel.com/5695132/choosing-to-spend-the-holidays-away-from-family-can-be-an-act-of-love
Johnson, J. (2011) Feeling Isolated and Alone This Holiday Season? Huffington Post. Retrieved on November 22, 2015, from: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/judith-johnson/thanksgiving-loneliness-_b_1098270.html