Navigating family gatherings during holidays important for mental health: counsellor

When spending time with family over the holidays, it's important to stay true to your values, one expert says. Getty Images

At this time of year, many Winnipeggers are making the holiday rounds and have a full schedule of family gatherings to attend.

But what happens when spending time with family means stress and frustration instead of merriment?

Carolyn Klassen of Conexus Counselling told 680 CJOB it’s all about balancing the “yin and yang of Christmas.”

“Often, on Christmas Eve, at noon, regular life stops and then family gathering season begins, and a lot of people will race from one family gathering to the next, trying to see if they can make everybody happy and probably, inevitably, disappointing people,” she said.

Carolyn Klassen. Global News / File

“Some people love the fact that life stops and there’s nothing to do but snowmobile with people you haven’t seen and love to be with, and other people are rolling their eyes and getting ready to grit their teeth to be with people — there’s a reason they don’t see them for many months of the year.

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“Now, they’re expected to be with them and look like they’re having a good time, even though they’d rather be just about anywhere else,” Klassen explained.

Klassen says people often feel an obligation to go to family events and put on a happy face to hide their true feelings, but that’s not the healthiest way to deal with the holiday stress, she explains. The key, she says, is to figure out what’s right in terms of your own values and make holiday decisions from there.

READ MORE: Survive the holidays by maintaining connections with family, friends — mental health advocate

“Who says you have to put on a happy face? Sometimes, we have these expectations of ‘I have to go,’ and I’ll ask people: ‘Why do you have to go?’ What are the rules that say you have to be there?” Klassen said.

“Your values may say, ‘I should go put in an appearance,’ but maybe you don’t have to be there for the whole length of time.

“If you know that it’s going to be hard, can you ask someone you’re going with, ‘Can you have my back so I don’t have to be alone with this uncle because we have a history?'”

Many people, she says, are run by a feeling of shame but worrying about what other people will think of them. That feeling of obligation can be detrimental, she says.

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“We can run our tanks too empty, and then we might not even be good for the people we’re visiting at that very last family gathering,” Klassen said.

“There’s often this expectation we put on ourselves, and the truth is when we act outside of our values to make other people think we’re good enough, it pulls us out of who we are.”

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