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Friday, May 24, 2024

How to Deal With Difficult Family During the Holidays

With Thanksgiving travel slated to return to within 5 percent of 2019 levels, AAA predicts that upwards of 54 million people are traveling for the holiday—an 80 percent increase from last year. This year—perhaps more so than in years past—the issue of holiday travel is a particularly interesting one.

Thanks to two major overlapping events—the pandemic and the 2020 presidential election—the last two years have seen a lot of families and loved ones fall out over irreconcilable differences about politics or Covid-related grievances. While some relationships came to an abrupt end (Cornell University professor Karl Pillemer found that "about 25 percent of the population is living with an active estrangement"—the equivalent of almost 70 million people in the US), my suspicion is that many of those traveling to see loved ones are about to endure a tricky holiday season together.

As someone with a history of fraught family dynamics (no matter the season), the issue of holiday travel has always been far from stress-free and innocuous, and I’d often spend the holidays on the East Coast waiting for the other shoe to drop. (It always did.)

After considerable therapy, I’m now practiced enough at boundaries to travel strictly on my terms. That said, now that we all have vaccines and a relative decline in Covid-cases, many people will travel back home and directly into the path of tiresome relationships—even if it's not the most emotionally uplifting choice.

A Google search for “Holiday Survival Guide” yields more than 36 million results, which suggests that there’s no shortage of people anxious about navigating the season and coming out on the other end psychologically intact. In reporting for NPR, Julia Furlan summed it up nicely: “There are … a lot of people who get a very familiar pit in their stomach when the holidays roll around. Holidays can mean exhaustion, confronting familial trauma, managing your uncle's opinions, and all kinds of overload.”

In honor of those for whom the holidays are a predictable slog, I’ve compiled a short list of YouTube channels, audiobooks, and podcasts that are a must-listen for anyone returning home this season to their own challenging dynamics.

2 YouTube Channels with a Mental Health Focus

Clinical psychologist Ramani Durvasula is the author of three books, including Don't You Know Who I Am?: How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility and Should I Stay or Should I Go? Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist. She specializes in narcissism and toxic family dynamics, among other areas. Her channel boasts nearly a million subscribers, and her content is a salve for anyone requiring emotional validation during the holidays.

“There’s a mythology around the unconditionality of family. We were taught that lesson since we were children,” Durvasula said during an interview. “You don’t see images in society or advertising of friends coming together during the holidays, or of mixed groups of individuals coming together. The fetishization of the nuclear family is a real problem and keeps people stuck.” With content focusing on “holiday hygiene for dealing with narcissistic family members” and “Dr. Ramani’s holiday survival guide,” Durvasula’s YouTube channel serves as an encyclopedia for toxic relationships and how to navigate them.

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MedCircle, with 1 million subscribers, is another binge-worthy channel for anyone who enjoys listening to mental health content during long trips. The channel says it updates its content every week, offering interviews with world-class psychiatrists and psychologists.

Both of these channels have accompanied me on long trips home, and they provide an abundance of tools for navigating tricky relationship dynamics.

2 Best-Selling Audiobooks

Lindsay Gibson, a Virginia-based clinical psychologist, is author of the best-selling self-help book Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents: How to Heal from Distant, Rejecting, or Self-Involved Parents. Her expertise includes helping her clients navigate difficulties stemming from what she coined “EIPs,” or “emotionally immature parents.”

“Emotionally immature people are very egocentric, self-preoccupied, not self-reflective, and they don’t respect boundaries. They tend to be quite dominant,” Gibson said during an interview. Her audiobook is available on Amazon and is perfect for long drives or flights. It comes complete with a road map for how to identify and disengage from emotionally immature people—a perfect holiday crash course for anyone who needs it.

The audiobook The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, by Boston-based psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, is another great road or sky companion for anyone interested in how trauma shapes the body and brain, and how to recover from it.

I have read and gifted both of these books to friends who’ve experienced—and struggled to overcome—psychological abuse at the hands of close relations.

2 Podcasts for Wellness Junkies

Paul Krauss is a licensed therapist who directs the Trauma Informed Counseling Center of Grand Rapids, Michigan. His podcast, The Intentional Clinician, boasts 75 episodes of informative talks covering psychology and philosophy with a variety of health professionals. His work has recently been featured on PBS.

I asked Krauss about the nature of his work with clients, particularly during the holidays. “The holidays are often a busy time for therapists,” he said in an email. “Many clients suffer from anxious anticipation of feeling obligated to spend time with certain family members, or they may ask for additional appointments around the holidays. In general, the holidays can be a time of mental health crisis for many people.”

With episodes focusing on yoga, substance use disorder, chronic pain, anxiety and other topics, listeners can browse it all or find specific episodes relevant to their own issues.

Finally, the podcast Unlocking Us, hosted by best-selling author Brené Brown, offers in-depth discussions of topics including relationships, courage, shame, stress, and burnout. Her podcast is a must-listen for anyone who needs reminders about how to stay grounded in the face of relational stress and conflict this holiday season.

While I can’t say the YouTube videos, audiobooks, and podcasts I’ve enjoyed have ever successfully morphed my own holiday experiences into Hallmark specials, it was comforting knowing that people were talking about the situations, scenarios, and difficulties that I (mistakenly) believed were unique to my personal circumstances. It’s perhaps truer now than ever before that relationships with loved ones—for many people—are akin to walking on eggshells. If holiday travel to see tricky family is a must, these resources can help you prepare.

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