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Why Are Family Gatherings So Stressful?

Cassandra* sits in my office looking down at her fidgeting hands. Before she even opens her mouth, I know what we’re going to spend our session talking about: how on earth is she going to survive the holiday season with her family? I’ve been seeing Cassandra for awhile now and am beginning to dread every holiday just as much as she does knowing the amount of stress it’s going to cause her.

Given the time of year, I’ve been checking in with a number of people about how they’re feeling about the holidays—seeing their families, visiting with in-laws, etc. For some, doing the rounds for Christmas or Hanukkah isn’t something that garners much emotional attention. But others are consumed by feelings of anticipatory stress, dread, or depression after each visit. As such, I can’t help but wonder: why are family gatherings so stressful for some of us?

1. We Snap Back Into Old Roles

From my perspective, every member of a family plays a particular role in the family play. There might be a “hero child,” a.k.a. the responsible, high-achieving child who carries the pride of the family. There might be a “rescuer”—the one who takes care of others’ needs and emotions. Other common roles include the lost child, the mediator, the scapegoat, and more. Every single role has pros and cons. The hero child, for example, might frequently have their ego stroked by certain members of the family, yet may be riddled with anxieties relating to perfectionism. On the contrary, the lost child might benefit from not ever being in the spotlight and therefore being able to “get away with” more than other children, yet internally feels a sense of neglect and abandonment.

If you’ve been in therapy or are generally self-aware (or both), chances are you’ve given a lot of thought to the role you played in your family. And chances are that through your self-discovery, you realized that you were more than the label that was bestowed upon you. For example, maybe as the Mediator of the family you learned to set boundaries for yourself so you weren’t continually stuck in the middle. Or as the Family Clown, perhaps you allowed yourself to get more in touch with your deeper emotions rather than trying to maintain the peace all the time.

Family gatherings, then, pose a dilemma: we’re forced back into old roles that we’ve spent months, years, or even decades trying to unlearn. What’s more is that our family members have an image of us in their heads that inform how they relate to us. Thus, when they talk to our “old self,” we might not like it—and they might not like that we aren’t sticking to the script either.

2. We feel a sense of loss and/or shame.

Western society is quite fixated on the idea of the “perfect family.” We’ve learned that our family is “supposed to” be supportive, loving, kind-hearted, close-knit, happy, and more. We may have also learned that our siblings are “supposed to” be our best friends, confidants, and partners in crime. As a result, people who don’t have these types of relationships in their families can feel a great sense of loss and shame. Why doesn’t my family look like this? Why aren’t we close in this way? What does it say about me if I don’t even want to have a relationship with my family? When people ask themselves these questions, they can feel overwhelmed with a feeling of sadness and grief over what they wish they had. Family gatherings, then, are painful reminders of “what could have been.”

3. We are less tolerant.

If you and your family members all grew up in the same household, you sort of had to get along. And if you didn’t, it’s likely that a parent was there to put you in your place. Adulthood is different. It’s no longer your caregiver’s job to tell you when you’re being unreasonable. Plus, adulthood is just way more tiring; you’ve had a long work week, your patience has dwindled, and you’ve become much more selective of how you want to spend your time. So when you see your family members, those little habits that once mildly irritated you seem downright intolerable since (a) there’s no one to tell them to knock it off, (b) you’re just generally not in the mood to deal with their nonsense, and (c) you’ve become an autonomous individual who has formulated an opinion about their behaviours, unlike the naive child you once were.

So what the heck do we do about it?

I think it’s important to make a conscious decision about how you want to proceed in your family. Rather than acting like a helpless victim who has no control, make a choice. Do you want to work on the relationships? Do you want to simply lower your expectations and accept reality? Or do you want to start saying no to family functions altogether? Remember that every choice has different consequences, but it’s about which ones you’re willing to personally live with.

Finally, you can practice self-care around this. If you have a significant other, it can be really helpful to lean on them for support during family functions to help you cope. Find moments to slip away just the two of you so you can get a break. If you don’t have a significant other, consider bringing a close friend to functions if possible so they can help ground you throughout the day. If neither of these are an option, create a plan for how you’re going to take care of yourself after family events. Seeing a group of close friends after family functions can be extremely valuable as it can remind you that “hey, I might not feel loved or supported in my family, but I feel that way with my friends,” and that’s amazing.

*names have been changed to protect anonymity


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