Give Yourself the Gift of Self-Care

Holiday Self-Care: Coping with Stress and Difficult Family Relationships

The holidays are here again!

We all know it’s supposed to be a joyful time of year – filled with happy family gatherings, plentiful gifts, and a joyful spirit. But for some, the reality is far different – the family gatherings are painful, finances are tight, and you feel anxious and overwhelmed.

How can we deal with holiday stress?

I wish I could promise you a solution to heal broken relationships and painful memories, to bring you joy and peace, but many problems can’t be solved so quickly or easily. Instead, we have to do our best with what we have and who we are.

We can choose to be the best versions of ourselves and empower ourselves to celebrate (or not celebrate) in the ways that feel right for us. I hope the following holiday self-care tips help you create a less stressful and more fulfilling holiday.

Holiday Self-Care Tips

Enjoy your holiday failures and everything that doesn’t go according to plan

No matter how hard we try, the holidays never go exactly the way we want them to. It can be challenging to stay flexible, but the rewards are great when we can adapt to last minute changes and even laugh at ourselves.

The holidays don’t have to be perfect to be fun, meaningful, and memorable. In fact, sometimes the most memorable holidays are the least perfect of all.

Try to keep the real meaning of the holidays in the forefront and not get hung up on the details. A gratitude practice can be especially helpful to train your brain to find the good in every situation.

Holiday Self-Care

Take care of your physical health

It’s wonderful to spend the holiday season giving and doing for others, but not at the expense of your own health and wellbeing. Remember that old adage to put your own oxygen mask on first? Well, it’s true. We can’t do for others if we’re exhausted and burnt out.

Self-care is especially important during the holiday season because we’re extra busy and not following our normal routines. We’re consuming more sugar and alcohol, staying up late, and skipping our workouts. This is fun in the moment but often leaves us feeling sluggish or irritable.

Try to schedule time for things that restore you emotionally, physically and spiritually. Perhaps that’s meditation, exercise, playing the guitar, or talking to your therapist.

Say “no” when you need to

The holidays are filled with extra obligations – party invitations, family gatherings, buying gifts, cooking, and on and on. However, you can’t do it all and you needn’t feel like you have to!

Boundaries are an important form of self-care. They help you protect your time and energy so it’s spent on what’s most important to you.

It’s helpful to remember that you have choices; you don’t have to celebrate with your in-laws or buy gifts for your coworkers just because that’s what you’ve always done. You can give yourself permission to do the things that you enjoy, shop within your budget, and celebrate in a new way, if that’s what you want to do.

You can politely decline invitations or leave early if things get uncomfortable. Check-in with yourself and listen to what’s right for you and act accordingly. There is nothing wrong with considering your own needs.

Do you need help phrasing your boundaries so they’re clear and kind?

boundary worksheets

Get a complete set of boundary scripts to help you find just the right words.

Surround yourself with positive people

Do you feel obligated to spend the holidays with relatives that annoy or offend you or people that you just don’t like? Limiting time with “energy vampires” who drain your energy and leave you feeling exhausted and irritated can help, but I also encourage you to actively seek out and make plans with positive people.

You can create a “family” of your own choosing by gathering with friends, neighbors, your faith community, or anyone who “fills you up” emotionally.

Set realistic expectations

Unfortunately, expectations are often an invitation for disappointment. There are two types of unrealistic holiday expectations:

  1. You expect things to be the same even though you know something has changed. For example, you expect your sister to go on an annual holiday shopping trip with you, but she’s not available because she has a new baby this year.
  2. You expect the holidays will be different even though there’s no evidence that things have changed. For example, you expect your husband to limit his drinking after last year’s fiasco or your mother-in-law to stop making snide comments about your weight, but there’s no indication that either is trying to change.

Adjusting your expectations helps you plan for challenges by asking yourself: “Given the reality of the situation, what are my options? How can I make this situation manageable for myself? What can I do if it becomes unmanageable?”

Instead of wasting energy trying to change other people, you can put your attention toward how you’re going to take care of your needs. You can create a plan for dealing with your husband’s drinking or your mother-in-law’s snide comments in advance and feel prepared and confident heading to your family holiday gathering.

Savor the good times

Often the holiday season is a mixed bag; some of it’s fun and fulfilling and some of it’s stressful. Boundaries and realistic expectations can help minimize the stressful parts, but you may still have to deal with some challenging people, situations, or decisions.

Try not to let the problems overshadow the good times. For example, you may enjoy baking pies but really dread mealtime with your family. So, really soak up the experience of baking the pies. Use all of your senses to savor every aspect of the experience and enjoy it to the fullest. This can help reinforce what’s positive during the holidays, even if it’s simply baking pies.

Take a real break

Have you allowed time for rest and relaxation in your holiday plans? No matter if you’ve got one day or two weeks off from work during the holidays, it’s easy to pack it full of travel, parties, and holiday to-dos. And while many of these things are enjoyable, they can also be draining.

So, be sure you’ve set aside time for something restorative whether it’s a quiet dinner with your spouse, an afternoon alone with a great novel, or going home early so you can get a good night’s sleep. It’s a real drag to go back to work after the holidays feeling drained and like you didn’t even get a break.

I hope these holiday self-care tips will help you cope with holiday stress and difficult family relationships.

7 Holiday Self-Care Practices

©2021 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved. Photos courtesy of

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Sharon Martin, DSW, LCSW is a psychotherapist and author specializing in codependency recovery. For the past 25 years, she’s been helping people-pleasers, perfectionists, and adult children overcome self-doubt and shame, embrace their imperfections, and set boundaries. Dr. Martin writes the popular blog Conquering Codependency for Psychology Today and is the author of The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism and The Better Boundaries Workbook.

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