Dysfunctional Family Values (During the Holidays)

photo by ChrisGoldNY via PhotoRee

I grew up as part of a family that could be described as dysfunctional. And so, for that reason (and because the holidays always seem to bring bad familial memories to the fore), a couple of weeks ago I began searching for information. I wanted to learn more about how a person could go about surviving and thriving during this time of year even though he or she might as well be related to Joan Crawford, Archie Bunker and the Bundys.

I didn’t find much, aside from an article on Oprah’s website. Therefore, I figured I’d draft my own. In the spirit of giving, here are my tips on  making it through the end of December in one piece, emotionally and spiritually.

Take Time to Reflect

You may not have had the ideal upbringing. You may have grown up in a haunted house, or  even had no home for a period of time. You might have suffered from abuse at the hands of a family member. Or you were abandoned. Or neglected. Or you simply have relatives who, for lack of a better term, are complete buttheads.

In my own family, I’ve seen a little of everything. Yet when I consider what my life actually looks like now – I’m a mom, a businesswoman and a member of the community – I am amazed at how far I’ve made it from my inauspicious beginnings.

I would recommend you do the same. Focus on what you have achieved on your own. Did you finish your degree? Do you love your job? Are your kids awesome, wonderful people? Look at your life through the lens of gratitude and realize how much you’ve grown. Once you realize how significant your accomplishments are, your unhappy past will seem that much more insignificant by comparison.

Broaden Your Definition of “Family”

Trite as it may sound, friends are the family you’ve chosen for yourself. Realizing this, I think, is key to appreciating not only how meaningful your relationship is with your friends but also how important you are to them.

My personal belief about soulmates goes something like this: each and every one of us has multiple soulmates in this life. These people are the other members of our “tribe” and when you meet one, you quickly recognize him or her as your soul brother or sister.

I have a list I keep on Facebook of my “Close Friends”. This is a relatively small group (currently only eighteen people out of more than 420 total “friends”) of those individuals with whom I feel the closest – and yes, these are folks I actually know in person. My criterion for including people on the list was whether or not I thought the person had ever met the “real” me, but in retrospect, these folks are my soulmates and, by that token, my extended family.

Get Busy

Create your own traditions and means of celebrating the season. No one ever said you had to have turkey and stuffing for Christmas dinner, especially if that dinner brings back bad juju from your childhood. In fact, the farther you get from your family of origin’s traditions, most likely the better.

You have a lot of room for creativity here. If your mom always put up a 7 foot blue spruce the day after Thanksgiving, you can keep a small tree on your tabletop – or eschew a tree altogether. I decided a few years ago to begin celebrating St. Nicholas Day because I loved the idea of celebrating the life of the man after whom Santa Claus was styled. We managed to skip this year (work, *sigh*) but I may try to get my 8-year-old some activities to do before Christmas. He loves the chocolate coins in the shoes.

Reach Out

My final tip is, I think, the most powerful. Helping others allows you to experience something beyond yourself and the pain you’ve lived through. No matter how poorly you were treated or how much sorrow you’ve experienced, there is always someone else out there who has suffered more, or more deeply, whether that someone happens to be an adult, a child, a cat or an organization in need. Volunteer work has long been named a panacea for depression, and was recently named one of the top activities Americans enjoy during the holidays.

When you’re looking outward, there is less time to reflect inward on past hurts and disappointments. You’re also celebrating your position as a member of the largest family of all.