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Healthy Holiday Tips - Indianapolis Star Interview
Written By: Mark Smith

Healing Toxic Shame Through Recovery
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The following is a recent interview that I gave regarding attending or not attending family holiday gatherings. I thought that my readers would find it very helpful.

1. If you, for whatever reason, want to get out of the holiday hoopla, how do you break it to your family that you will not be coming over for turkey or opening presents beneath the tree? - It's that time of year again, isn't it! Obviously this is a dicey issue. There are legitimate obligations to family. It is far from a black and white issue. If after feeling on the decision to attend a family gathering or not you are quite clear that it is just not the right thing for you this particular holiday season, sharing that news would best be done as early as possible and as directly as possible. Plan ahead, make that phone call and allow your loved ones to process your news. While they will be disappointed, if you openly share your heart about the reasons for your decision if you present it to them in a kind and respectful manner most of them will respect your decision.

2. Relatives will inevitably feel slighted and personally affronted. How do you make them understand its not personal, that you just dont want to be involved this year? - This is obviously very important. Some family members will react more strong to the news of your "abandoning" the family. This is rooted in their own issues around abandonment. All you can do its share your news early on, clearly state why coming is not right for you and affirm for them your love and respect for them. Just keep doing that until hopefully most of it sinks in. You cannot control your family's reactions, however. If you have been true to yourself while being open, kind and communicative with them about your plans then you will eventually need to let it goes if one or more of your family members is unable to honor your choices.

3. How do you ward off guilt for not buying in (pun intended) to the whole big holiday gathering thing? - Let me differentiate between guilt, which is your conscience tapping your on the shoulder when you have legitimately done something wrong and shame, which is a heavy, horrible sense of being bad and unworthy when you have not done anything wrong at all - it just feels like you have due to family pressure, internal self-criticism, childhood abuse or negative feedback from a variety of sources. So what we are really talking about here is how to ward of shame. Well, it is easier said than done. Just hold on to what you know in your heart - it is just not right for you to attend that function this year - period. Many families control its members through shame. If you have been controlled by shame your whole life, not feeling shame for some healthy individuation this Christmas is not going to feel good. There is a great book that can help - "Healing The Shame That Binds You" by John Bradshaw. If you are still struggling with it, a course of therapy might be in order. Shame is the common cold on family issues.

4. What do you do if someone gets you a present, but you were not planning to buy him or her one? - I'm not a "Miss Manners" expert here, but from a healthy sense of self perspective I would advise you to not reciprocate solely out of shame. If it was not in your heart or budget to give them a present then that is OK. Graciously accept the gift. Allow them to enjoy giving to you. Don't spoil that for them because of your driving inner sense of shame and obligation. Perhaps you will feel inspired to get them something next year.

5. What are some good reasons to avoid holiday observances, and what are some good reasons not to? I ask in order to uncover how you can be sure your motives are ok (i.e., not skipping out simply to avoid someone you do not get along with or to hurt someone you are mad at?) - Of course there are many good reason to skip holiday observances. Young families often need time alone to begin to establish their own holiday traditions away from the extended family. Young couples often need time to re-connect and re-charge alone as a couple during holiday breaks. And, to address your question, it might be entirely appropriate to chose to not attend a family holiday gathering if a family member will be there who has been abusive, violating or harmful in some way to you. Missing so as not to hurt them sounds pretty unhealthy, though. In that case, go, be your self while also being kind, non-reactive and appropriate but then just let the chips fall where they may. People aren't as fragile as you might think.

6. If the motivation is you do not like noise and stress, do you have tips for handling those issues? - This can be a real issue for some people. I have several ideas - step away from the holiday mob for a brief mental health break. You can do this by taking a walk or laying down in a spare bedroom for an hour. An incredible mental health saving devise has been invented called the Ipod. If the family ruckus gets overwhelming for you, pop your earphones in a take a brief mental health vacation with a favorite artist or author. You can get needed space to breathe while not really having much physical space at all.

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This article was authored by Family Tree Counseling Associates, a marriage, individual and family counseling center serving the Indianapolis, Carmel, Fishers, Westfield and Noblesville communities in Indiana. If you would like to contact us, please fill out a contact us form or call us at 317-844-2442.
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