A love note from me, Heidi, to you - during the holiday season, that can be so emotionally and mentally-charged for so many of us that deal with familial estrangement.
I truly care about sustainability. This applies to this business, certainly, to politics and institutions, to fashion and lifestyle, yes, but also to my own personal life. To me, sustainability means creating the best possible conditions for all life to thrive. This means human beings, animals, plants - all of us in harmony and flourishing together. Given that you and I are human beings, this applies to us. Yes, us. I want you and I to be whole, to be self aware, emotionally-and mentally-well. I want to be healthy, happy and growing. I want the same for you.
When I am personally out of alignment in my own life, it is not possible for me to have the clarity and wherewithal to pursue a sustainable lifestyle. It is not sustainable to endure ongoing trauma. It is not sustainable to forsake one's own mental and emotional health for the sake of others, or anything. If I am not working toward wholeness, how can I contribute to it? I deserve more. So do you. This type of alignment requires healthy boundaries with the world around us. Boundaries are not something everyone in my biological family is able to respect, and so, I experience estrangement.
Strained relationships with family members are difficult on the best of days. Estrangement causes me grief, sadness, despair, and anger, and yet also pride, and even contentment, at times. Like all things, it is complicated and requires me to sit amongst so many feelings at one time (ugh, so challenging). Yet, it can feel especially difficult during the holiday season, when we are expected by society to celebrate and honor those we love while feeling only peace and joy (sometimes in the company of those who give us neither of those).
And so...I reached out to my friend and Licensed Mental Health Counselor, Emily Ballard, for some advice on how to handle estrangement and difficult family dynamics during the holidays. She specializes in family trauma and self-reclamation and always offers up amazing advice. I'm sharing her tips and tricks here, in hopes that they can help you or someone you love, or even just provide a sense of solidarity. All of the words below are Emily's, and you can learn more about her work here.
I am wishing you ease, acceptance and peace in this season and all others,
So: you’re estranged from some or all of your family during the holidays.
It’s hard. You want it to not be hard (because you don’t even LIKE these people!) and yet here you are, smack in the middle of the hard.
Because lots of words all smashed together can be overwhelming when things feel this particular brand of hard, here’s a snappy little list of tips, tricks, and solidarity.
1) Drink a glass of water
I know, GROSS. What a stupid idea. Who even suggests that? I HATE THIS LIST ALREADY. Listen: will if make you feel better? No. Will it make you feel superior to everyone else because you just drank some water FOR YOUR MENTAL HEALTH? Yes. Take the win.
2) Have a cry
You don’t have to know what you’re crying about, exactly. You don’t have to understand the tears. Or maybe you know exactly who those tears are connected to. Either way, please: let the tears happen.
We’ve been socially indoctrinated into the idea that we’re supposed to be happy on holidays, and let me be the first to tell you: this is bullshit. Put “supposed to” away, and embrace the idea that you’re a human person having a really difficult human experience; you’re not supposed to feel anyway other than the way you do. (And if Aunt So-And-So tells you to put your tears away because it’s the holidays, use your eyeballs to tell her to go fuck herself, and then go find yourself a quiet space to finish your (truly) important business.
3) Talk about it
Tell your partner how hard it feels to see other people sharing joy with their family when you can’t be around yours without being harmed. Tell the pages of your journal; write and write and write if that feels cathartic. Talk about it on social media, and don’t censor yourself; we all know the Anne Lamott quote, yet it always bears repeating, “Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”
4) Eat something
Yes, even if it was “their” recipe. This one can be tricky for lots of reasons. Prepare yourself for sneak attacks; food is such an emotional thing for so many of us, and around the holidays, you might find yourself wanting to cook foods your estranged mother or father used to cook.
Please: let yourself eat and enjoy the things you love to eat and enjoy. Will it feel complicated to be baking her cookie recipe while knowing that while she was passing this this down to you, she also passed down traumas you might never recover from? Of course. Is this duality one of the parts of being a person many of us are stuck wrestling with? Yup.
Because here’s the thing: we have two choices. We can either let ourselves enjoy the things we want to enjoy and sit with the weird feelings that come up, or we can try to deny ourselves the things we want to enjoy and then sit in the discomfort of feeling conflicted . Personally, I’d rather deal with the discomfort of a weird truth than with the internal battle of an (entirely reasonable though ultimately pointless) argument with a baked good.
5) Acknowledge yourself
Choosing your emotional safety and healing over the preferences of your harmful family member(s) is such an incredible act of self-care and courage. In a society that values blind dedication to systems of oppression (and yes, a relentlessly unhealthy family system that causes harm without accountability or repair is a system of oppression) in order to keep the peace, you have gone rogue. Congratulations. Honor your damn self for doing this difficult work.
And at the risk of ruining this entire piece of writing by being trite and cliché and obvious: this work of self-reclamation from harmful family systems really is the best gift you could give yourself during this — or any — holiday season.