“Home for the holidays” is such a beautiful, ringing sentiment when it’s caressing the airways in Perry Como’s smooth tones.
But on the other end of the spectrum is a (possibly) more realistic thought: “I’ll be home for Christmas and in therapy by New Year’s.”
Family can be tough, and preparing for a few days at mom’s or grandpa’s house can seem a little like outfitting yourself for a loving, laughing war.
’Cause someone along the way, somewhere, is going to make a comment about your hair. Or your dress. Or your lack of a boyfriend/girlfriend/baby/job.
Still, most people will head home, pack on a little lightweight armor for some of the shots coming their way, and manage to love being with their families.
Marketing manager Rosie Chuong will make the one-hour trip from her home in Anaheim to spend the holidays with her family in Murrieta, California.
She has reached a peace, of sorts, with her mother about her curly hair, so comments have slowed over the years. That wasn’t always the case.
“I wasn’t born with curly hair,” Chuong says. “It was straight until I went to college. Curly hair is extremely uncommon for Asian people to have. There’s already a general lack of awareness or education for curly hair. Amplify that within the Asian culture, and then the pressure to abide by straight hair standards is even tougher.”
Family expectations at the holidays — at any time, for that matter — can add pressure to what is already a stressful time. (Did you get the right baking dish for Aunt Irma? How much scotch is Uncle Scot going to drink? Will there be enough left for anyone else?)
Ready, set, go
The best way to prepare for confrontations is to do just that — prepare, says psychologist Harriet Lerner, author of The Dance of Anger – A Woman’s Guide to Changing the Pattern of Intimate Relationships.
“If family visits have been stressful in the past, they will be especially so at holidays,” she cautions. “Anticipate the hot spots. You know your family well enough to know what will make you clutch and react. It may be criticism. It may be your sister’s bossiness. It may be your dad’s comments on the political situation.”
It’s best, she says, to prepare yourself to stay calm and underreact.
Dr. Susan Biali Haas, a wellness expert and life coach, can wholeheartedly agree with that advice. And she brings up that “expectations” word again.
“One of the best things that you can do to prepare — and this goes for all of life, not just the holidays — is to stop having expectations that people will change,” she says. “Resolve not to be frustrated, disappointed, or furious if they act the same as they always do. People are pretty predictable. Refuse to be upset or caught off guard by their predictable behavior.”
Decide in advance how you’re going to respond to the typical comments you hear, Biali Haas says. Take the aunt who is going to say something about the fact you decided to straighten your “beautiful curls.”
“There’s really no reason to be shocked, surprised, or freshly disappointed, as she is just being who she always has been,” Biali Haas says.
When that happens, Lerner’s advice is simple.
“You can take space when your fires start to rise,” she says. “This can include everything from leaving for a brisk walk or hiding out in the bathroom to cool down. Make a plan to manage the conversation with lightness and humor.”
Most importantly, “Keep your own reactivity in check so things don’t escalate.”
Chuong is used to open dialogue and debate with her mother, but it’s taken some years to get to a comfortable place. When her hair began to curl in her college years, she wasn’t even sure how to take care of it herself, so arguing with her mother about it was even tougher.
“My hair was frizzy all the time, and my mom hated the fact that my hair looked unruly and unrefined, so for many years, she would always ask me why I won’t go do a Japanese straightening perm for my hair,” Chuong recalls. “Or she would tell me I would look more beautiful and younger if my hair was straight.”
But interestingly, as Chuong began to embrace her natural texture and take care of her curls, her mother stopped making comments.
Chuong admits that out of all her family, she’s the most likely to have a sharp tongue when her mother comments on her appearance.
“I always just tell her that I love myself exactly the way I am and if she doesn’t, then it’s her problem,” Chuong says.
Setting boundaries is not the easiest thing to do.
Lerner encourages a “think-and-plan” approach that helps to dial back the emotional reactions.
“Be your best self even when another family member is being a big jerk,” she says.
And for goodness’ sake, be smart and avoid what Lerner calls the “high-twitch” subjects, or those things that are emotional or difficult to process.
“Anxiety is especially high at family holidays, even if it’s underground, so save difficult conversations for another time,” she says.
Setting boundaries sometimes will provoke anger or other unpleasant reactions, Biali Haas says. So be prepared for what may happen if you go home and try to change some of those etched family patterns.
“It’s important to identify who it is you react to, and to plan how you could respond differently,” she says. “You could resolve to be gracious in the face of their rudeness, or could plan to just gracefully ignore the comment and turn your attention to another subject, or someone else entirely.”
Set reasonable goals for your family events.
“Observing your family is a worthwhile goal. Getting through a visit without participating in any fights is another,” Lerner says. “Survival is a perfectly reasonable goal for a family visit at the holidays if you come from a family (like most) where intensity and reactivity runs high.”
None of these concerns will keep Chuong away from her family at the holidays.
“I plan to go home,” she says, “and wear my hair really loud and big.”