Christmas is a time for family... unfortunately.
Most of the people I talk to are going somewhere for Christmas this year. About half of them, at most, are excited about it.
The rest are going because it’s expected of them. Because we always go. Because Mum would be so disappointed if we didn’t. Because it’s nice to see the grandchildren. Because they make such a big thing of it.
Most look for supplementary benefits. ‘At least I don’t have to cook Christmas dinner’. ‘We can get away with only going for lunch, which is better than if they come to us’. ‘Luckily it’s not that far so we don’t have to stay the night’.
If you were hosting your family at Christmas and you knew they were saying that kind of thing, how would you feel? Would you think ‘I don’t care, I want them here even if they hate the thought of coming?’
As you’re a decent human, you probably would be mortified and rush to assure them that they really don’t have to come – in fact you’d rather they didn’t come if they really don’t want to. You’d almost certainly mean it, even if it meant spending Christmas on your own. Of course you’d be disappointed, but you don’t want to make people you love do things they don’t want to do.
Here’s a question to ponder.
How do you know that Mum would be really disappointed if you didn’t come? For all you know Mum would really like to go to lunch with her friends this year, but doesn’t know how to say so. From her perspective, she has to host the children and grandchildren because they make such a big thing of it. Nobody says anything for fear of upsetting people, and every year everyone does something they want to do a little less than they wanted to do it last year.
Of course Mum might be really disappointed if you don’t come. She might react with anger or tears if you tell her you aren’t. But what this ultimately means is that she’s disappointed – not that you’re wrong. If Mum’s feelings and happiness genuinely are more important to you than your own, then by all means spend Christmas the way she would want you to. But if you’re denying your preferences in favour of hers, why? What makes it impossible for you to respect your own feelings?
When I ask people this they often say ‘I don’t want to be selfish’. Selfishness is one of the cardinal sins that we’re conditioned to avoid from an early age. Putting what you want above what someone else wants has to be selfish, doesn’t it?
Selfish is as selfish does.
But wait – isn’t that what your mother is doing? If you and she want the same thing there’s no selfishness in the case, which proves that it’s not an absolute concept but a judgement, based on how much your wishes conflict with hers. It’s only because your preferences are different that accusations of selfishness arise. What this normally means is ‘you should be doing what I want instead of what you want’. Isn’t that the very definition of selfishness – prioritising your wishes at the expense of the other person’s?
If your mother is hurt and disappointed by your decision not to visit this year, she may throw the selfish word in to ease her own feelings. You know that being selfish is bad so you respond with guilt and shame, either digging in your heels and feeling miserable, or giving in and feeling resentful. Either way your mother knows that you didn’t really want to visit, so now she’s miserable too even if you do go. How is Christmas looking for everyone now?
The thing is, doing what you and your immediate family want to do at Christmas instead of what someone else expects or demands that you do is not selfish. You are a grown up with your own preferences and your own responsibilities. Perhaps you have to work over the Christmas period and it will be really inconvenient to be away. Perhaps you want to go somewhere else this year. Maybe you just don't want to go there. There are lots of reasons why you might not want to visit relations and they're all perfectly valid. It doesn't mean you don't love your family just as much as you did last year. (Admittedly, that may not be very much; in which case all the more reason not to put yourself out to visit them. It's ok not to love your family very much, if there's good reason not to).
It's hard to go against what your parents want and that's partly because you spent about 15 years as a child doing what they told you to do. Well, roughly 15. Ten, at least. Probably. And maybe another 20 or 30 after that. So it's a longstanding habit that everyone is used to and our brains are programmed not to like change. Change brings the unknown and the unknown means risk. Better not chance it.
Grin and bear it?
You may be saying that if you just suck it up and visit anyway, everyone stays happy. If that’s the case then great. Perhaps your wish to be elsewhere isn’t that strong compared to how much your relations want you to visit them, in which case you can probably visit without it costing you much in terms of happiness. But you do want to be elsewhere, otherwise we wouldn’t be having this conversation. If that preference is strong, then actually everyone doesn’t stay happy. Everyone else stays happy. Except you. And possibly your partner. Startlingly few people actually want to spend Christmas with their in-laws.
(By the way, if you get dragged to your mother-in-law’s at Christmas because your partner can’t face the thought of disappointing her, perhaps you could try explaining this concept. In this situation your preference is secondary to everyone else’s. Self-sacrifice is all very well but other-sacrifice, particularly unwilling, not so much. But if it doesn't work and you have to go, there’s help for you in another edition of these Twelve Days of Christmas; so look out for that.)
Supposing this year was the start of a new tradition where everyone does what they want to do rather than what’s expected of them at Christmas?
It doesn’t mean you can’t see your family. You can say ‘this year we’re spending Christmas at home. But we’d love to have you visit on Boxing Day/New Year/March 17th/the next solar eclipse’. Whatever works for you to #stayhealthy this festive season.
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Caeredwen is a physical therapist, coach and counsellor based in Coleford in the Forest of Dean. If this blog has touched you and you would like to contact her in confidence, you can reach her via firstname.lastname@example.org or via her website at www.magichandscalmminds.com.