Ep #77: Managing Holiday Family Stress

Strong as a Working Mom with Carrie Holland | Managing Holiday Family Stress
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We are in the thick of the Holiday Season. While there is a ton of fun, festivities, and gratitude at this time of year, it can also be challenging. For some people, myself included, the Holidays can serve as a reminder of everything you don’t have, which stirs up all kinds of thoughts and feelings, especially when we’re supposed to be in a season of cheer and merriment.

When you get your decorations out, speak to old friends, or visit your relatives, old memories come to the surface, and this can be a painful reminder of the people, friendships, and relationships you’ve lost over the years. Whatever this looks like for you, if the Holidays aren’t a super joyous time for you, I’m offering you some valuable perspective and reminding you that there is nothing wrong with the way you’re feeling.

So tune in this week to discover some helpful thoughts to consider as you notice stress or sadness coming up and learn ways to manage those uncomfortable feelings and thought patterns.


Are you ready to eat, move, and think in a way that gets you strong both physically and mentally? You deserve to have both no matter how busy you are, and I can help. I’m opening up my one-on-one coaching program for new clients, and I would love to work with you. Click here to learn more about working with me.


What You Will Discover:

  • How TV and marketing make it seem like the Holidays are all twinkles and snowflakes.
  • The work it’s taken for me to be at peace with the dysfunction of my family.
  • Why people being out of your life doesn’t necessarily mean your relationship with them is over.
  • How old, painful memories come to the surface during the Holidays, even after you think you’ve resolved them.
  • Why you always get to decide how you want to think about and react to a situation.
  • How to process and deal with the challenging emotions that come up during the Holidays.

Listen to the Full Episode:

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Featured on the Show:

Full Episode Transcript:

You are listening to the Strong as a Working Mom podcast, Episode #77. If the holidays bring up family stress for you, you are not alone. Let me help you manage it.

Welcome to the Strong as a Working Mom podcast. If you’re balancing career, family, wellness, and some days sanity, you are in the right place. This is where high-achieving, busy, working moms get the tools they need to eat, move, and think. I’m your host, physician, personal trainer, and Certified Life Coach, Carrie Holland. Let’s do this.

Hey, how are you? What’s new, what’s good? So, what’s good here, well, we’re staring down winter break, and it starts in about two weeks. We are in the thick of the holiday season. For us here, it’s a mix of basketball games, swim meets, school music and band concerts, of course, the school party, and other parties to bring in the holidays. It’s busy, it’s fun, for sure. But it’s a lot.

Of course, it all leads up to a big party on Christmas Day with Adam’s family. My husband’s family is huge. With so many kids and grandkids now, we don’t even fit into a house anymore. So, we go to a church hall and spend the day there. It’s busy. It’s loud. It’s crazy. But it’s fun, and my boys look forward to it every year.

While there is a ton of fun and festivity and gratitude at this time of year during the holidays, it can also be a challenging time. It can be challenging for any number of reasons, but what I’ve found over the years for my clients, and even for me, is that the holidays can serve as a reminder of what you don’t have.

That can stir up all kinds of thoughts and feelings, especially as you go to loads of holiday parties. Or if you go to places and see people that you only see every once in a while. Or if you open up holiday cards from people you’ve known in all phases of your life and see the highlights and the perfectly manicured photos on their cards.

Or it may be that you pull out certain things like ornaments, or pictures or decorations. And that brings up all kinds of memories for you from different times or phases of your life. Or maybe there are people that are just not in your life anymore who used to be and the holidays can be a painful reminder that they’re not with you.

I want to offer you some perspective today on what to do if the holidays aren’t a super joyous time for you. I also want to give you some thoughts to consider as you notice what comes up for you over the holiday season, so that you can manage whatever feelings you have. Because there is nothing wrong with whatever you feel, okay? Let me make that clear from the outset.

I know that culture and marketing and TV and social media makes it seem as if this time of year is all twinkles and snowflakes. But the reality is, it’s not that way for everyone. And whatever feelings come up for you at this time of year, that’s okay, let them be there.

For me personally, while it’s taken a lot of work, and a lot of time to be at peace with the dysfunction of my family, the holidays are often a reminder of just how dysfunctional it is. I don’t have a large family, as I’ve said before, and my parents are not really in the picture.

There are occasional phone calls with my dad, but it’s generally pretty short and superficial, and only when my mom is not around. Because my dad essentially keeps the relationship he has with me a secret from her. As a result, my kids don’t know my parents at all other than the yearly birthday and our Christmas cards that come from my dad in the mail.

Part of this is a reflection of the choice I made. I own it. I own that I made this choice to not try to repair the dysfunction. And maybe this is true for you, too. Maybe you’ve done your work and made a conscious, deliberate, purposeful choice, that your relationship with your family member or former partner or friend is complete, in whatever shape that looks like.

I’ve done years of therapy and coaching on this, and what I had to realize was that as long as there is untreated mental illness and abuse in my family, it’s not safe for me and it is certainly not safe for my kids to be around it. So, I made that choice. Maybe that’s selfish.

Maybe it’s selfish that I decided it’s not worth having a fake relationship with my parents, because I’m not willing to risk them acting out and my kids witnessing it, like I did when I was younger and completely powerless. I didn’t have a choice as a kid. But now that I’m a full-fledged adult, I do. I made that choice, even though it was a hard one, because I want something better for my own family.

I do not want my kids to grow up in a home that is unsafe. I do not want my kids growing up in a home that is unstable and unpredictable like mine was. I don’t want my kids to be exposed to the dysfunction, abuse, and mental illness that I was exposed to. And I absolutely refuse to walk on eggshells around that situation anymore.

Years of work has led me to realize that I spent the first 34 years of my life walking on eggshells and remaining silent so as not to upset the balance at home. But now, I realize that the balance I thought I was upholding was so off balance it’s not even funny. But no one, myself included, was brave enough to do anything about it.

So, we all went on in silence, pretending like everything was just fine on the outside. Meanwhile, on the inside, it was and still is, frankly, a total and complete disaster. Now, at 45, I absolutely refuse to be a part of it because I have my own family. I want better for them, and I want better for me. I don’t want to fake it anymore.

Because I made that choice, it means we don’t see my mom. But it also means we don’t see my dad, because my dad has made a different choice for himself. So, when the holidays come around, and my friends share how they’re balancing time between their families and their partner’s families, so they can get in time with everyone and be at all the family celebrations, I can’t relate.

There’s no coin toss to decide whose parents we see and when. There’s no alternating one Christmas with these parents, one Christmas with the other parents, or Christmas Eve with one family and Christmas Day with another; and there never will be. But I recognize and fully acknowledge, I made that choice and this is what it is.

But when the holidays come around, I still think about it. So, as I’m saying this out loud, I realize this may not make sense. I say it all the time, when I talk about my parents, that I’ve done my work. I believe that to my core, I have. But I would simply add, that even though I’ve done my work and I’m proud of the changes I’ve made in my perspective, and how I see myself now versus how I saw myself decades ago, it’s still there.

My past life, it’s still there. I can’t ignore it; I can’t forget about it. I remember when I was a kid, I would go to bed at night… and I’m not a religious person… but I would pray and pray and ask that I could wake up the next morning with no memory of what I experienced.

I would ask for my brain to be erased, and I could just forget the shouting and the crazy and the abuse and just have it be gone for my brain. But it never happened. I can’t erase it from my memory and pretend like it doesn’t exist, even though some days I still want to. The past just is. That’s it.

And, maybe the same is true for you. Maybe you’ve got a less than ideal family situation, for whatever reason. Maybe you’ve gotten help processing it, whether through therapy or coaching, or combination of both. Maybe in that work, you’ve made significant progress and feel that you’re in a better place and you feel at peace about it.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean the problem is gone. It doesn’t mean these people in your life are necessarily out of your life all together. And, that’s where it can get tricky. Because even though the relationship in your mind may be complete, there’s still a relationship of sorts. It took me a really long time to understand that. My own coach once pointed it out to me very clearly, that while I thought I don’t have a relationship with my mom, in fact I do. I have a very intense, negative, yucky, dysfunctional relationship with my mom, even though she’s no longer in my life.

But the difference now is that I can see the relationship as complete. It can be dysfunctional, and it can be complete. I used to think it had to be one or the other, but in fact, it can be both. There does not have to be resolution. In fact, in many cases and in many relationships, there isn’t resolution. But it can still be complete, even without that resolution. Your relationship still exists, even if it’s complete, because unless you’re able to erase your mind, like I wished for when I was young, that relationship still existed. There is still the memory of that person and the memory of your relationship and the memory of the feelings you experienced within that relationship.

And despite all of this, you can be the one to decide that the relationship is complete. It only takes one of you to make that choice. You do not have to involve the other person in your decision. Okay?

Here’s another thing about this that I learned, just recently even. I’ll share with you a lesson I was not ready to learn, but learned anyway. I think this is especially relevant as we glide into the holiday season. Even though you may have done a boatload of work to be at peace with your family or your past or your relationships…

Even though 99.9% of the time you are in a state of balance, and you’re in a good place, and most of the time you have a handle on the less than stellar parts of your life and your past and your unhappy relationships, sometimes it comes back and tests you.

Sometimes things happen that you are not prepared for or at all ready for. Sometimes surprises happen. We’re not talking good surprises here. But sometimes unexpected things happen, and you have to respond. Even though you might think you’ve done your work, and you’re in a place of peace, you may suddenly find yourself right back where you started.

You might feel like a total mess, like all of the tools and the concepts and the mindset work and the self-talk are just out the window. Maybe that’s just me. But here’s what I learned from my own experience, that I’ve been able to draw upon in my coaching work and now I’m sharing with you, you can change your habits.

You can absolutely change your wiring and practice thinking and practice acting in a way that is different from before. It is possible for you to change your identity. You can become a different person. You can be a different person in your relationship. I truly believe that, because I believe that I am a different person than I was before.

I credit it to the therapy and the coaching and the introspection, taking ownership of my life, and doing the work to change my identity. But that being said, that wiring is still there. That saying, “Old habits die hard,” that thing exists for a reason. Because the habit is still there. The thoughts are still there. The wiring is still present. And, it has the capacity to send you down a negative spiral you don’t want to go. That possibility is still there.

I know it, and I was reminded of it recently when I was in a situation I did not expect to be in. I had an interaction with my dad that I was entirely not expecting, and it immediately took me back to the feeling of complete and total powerlessness that I had when I was a kid.

For a few days, I’ll admit, I felt like a complete and total disaster. All of the work I had done, all of the mind management, all of the practicing thinking, all of it, I felt like it went out the window.

So, you can think of it this way. Imagine you live somewhere for 10+ years, and you’ve got a regular commute to work. You take that route to work twice a day, five days a week, every week, for 10 or more years. After a while, driving that route becomes automatic. You don’t have to think about the turns or the street signs or the exit on the highway, or the buildings you see along the way. You don’t need Siri to navigate for you because you know the way to work. There may be days even where you don’t remember driving to or from work because you’re just on autopilot. But now, imagine you take on a new job in another state and you move. Now you’ve got a new commute to work, so you have to get used to this new route.

At first you pay super close attention to all the turns and the exit and the stoplights. You’re super alert to all the details of your new drive. You do this for a number of months, or maybe a year or more, until that new commute becomes automatic. Eventually, you get to a place where you don’t have to think about it anymore.

Then, you go back to your old town for a visit after a couple of months. Maybe you’re headed back to town for a conference or visit with friends or whatever, and you decide to drive by your old work just because. You will find that that drive comes right back to you. It’s still there. Once you get on a certain road and make a turn, the rest is automatic. You don’t have to think about it anymore, you just drive.

Before you know it, you’re pulling up to your old work just like you did before. So, our brains and our habit loops, they are the same way. With time and practice old habit loops can essentially go dormant and be inactive like the drive to your former workplace. But under the right circumstances, those habit loops, they can be reactivated and they can be reactivated really easily. This is especially true under stressful situations. Remember how your brain works, it’s lazy. And remember your brain’s desires to seek pleasure, avoid pain, and use as little energy as possible. So, when you’re in a stressful situation, your brain will default to what it knows. It will default to what is most comfortable.

Your brain will go back to what’s easy, what’s familiar, and what takes the least amount of effort and energy to do in order to keep you safe. What this all adds up to, is that your brain still has the capacity to revert. You still have the wiring to bring you back to old habits, even if those old habits do not help you. It’s annoying as hell, but it’s true.

And so, while in this situation with my dad, I could totally feel myself reverting, but I got a hold of it. I reminded myself of what was real and true in that moment. I am an adult; I am not a lost, broken kid anymore. I’m not powerless. I am in control. I am safe, and my kids are safe. I’m not going to lie; it took a lot of work. It took a lot of mental energy, awareness, paying attention to myself, and checking in with my brain to stay on top of it and not let my brain go bananas on me and have a conniption. But I did it, and it was worth it.

I’m sharing this very long story to tell you, it’s worth it. It is worth the work of managing your brain and your thoughts around your difficult relationships. Especially when those relationships resurface, in some way, as they can do over the holidays. It is worth your time and energy to practice thinking about your difficult relationships differently.

You know what your negative thoughts spiral, that you’ve held on to for decades, you know what that gets you, right? Nothing good. Nothing good. So, in turn, you can decide that it’s worth the effort of practicing awareness and observing yourself and paying attention to your brain and practicing thinking differently so that you feel differently.

When I felt myself going totally backwards, and when I felt myself losing focus and forgetting all the work I had done, I got a hold of myself. I practiced telling myself over and over again, “I am not 13 anymore. I am not 13 anymore,” and it made a difference. It made a difference because I believed it.

I believe, with every fiber of my being, that I am not the same person I was before. I believe that I could handle whatever came up for me in my interaction with my dad. I believe that I could be an adult and not have a meltdown. And, I proved it true. It took energy, it took brainpower, it took some intentionality, but I chose that instead of choosing to have a fit and going down the same negative spiral I had done for decades.

So, remember, thoughts are habits too; I say it all the time. Thoughts are habit, too. I say it often because it is so important to understand, your thought patterns are a habit. And while you can do all of the work and practice your mantras and practice thinking, your work is never fully done.

I know, even just saying that out loud, it does not feel awesome. But I promised when I started this podcast that I wasn’t going to b.s. you, I wasn’t going to sugarcoat things, and I wasn’t going to talk in glittering generalities.

If you have a difficult relationship, or if you have a strained relationship with a family member or a partner or friend, that work doesn’t go away. My own coach reminded me of it. When I swore up and down that I didn’t have a relationship with my mom anymore, she corrected me. She finished by suggesting that this is my work, and I may never be done with this work.

I was super resistant to that at first. I didn’t want this to be my work. I was too angry and resentful that this is what I got stuck with. I was annoyed. I was so plagued with thoughts of my friends, and even my husband, who in my mind all have these super fun, friendly, kind, supportive, happy functional families.

I was too busy being mad about it, and mad that I got stuck with what I got stuck with. Maybe that’s you, too. I’m guessing you didn’t ask for whatever ‘ick’ happened to you. Whatever difficult situation you have, whether that’s with your family or friends, or whomever, I’m guessing you didn’t ask for it. Most of us don’t ask for dysfunctional relationships, right?

You might be angry that this is your work. You might be mad, like I was mad when my coach pointed out to me that this is what I have to grapple with. What I’ll offer to you is this, be mad, name it, and then allow it. So often we stop short. We can name it and say, “Hey, I feel really angry or disappointed or resentful about this.” But that’s not the end of it. There’s more to it than simply naming how you feel.

Once you do that, and you name your feeling, you’re not done. This is where I got really confused, and I hope I can help you. I used to think that once I could identify and name what I was feeling I was all done. But that’s the intellectual side of it. That’s your brain doing the work to attach a name to an emotion. But you’re not done.

Remember, you don’t think an emotion, you feel an emotion. So, once you name it for yourself, ‘I feel powerless,’ the next thing to do is allow it and feel it. You process it. Feel whatever comes up for you when you think about your difficult relationship. Feel all of it. Feel it in your bones and let it be there with you.

I use the term all the time, because I think it’s so fitting, “walk through it.” Walk right into the junk, face on, and feel whatever feelings come up for you. Allow the anger, allow the disappointment, allow all of it. Allow it all to come up for you.

When I think of allowing a feeling, I think of molecules banging around in a box. You know I’m a science nerd. I like visuals; this works for me. Imagine your feeling as a bunch of molecules. You’ve got them in a box. Now, imagine you put the top on that box while those molecules are still racing all over the place. What happens? Eventually, the pressure builds, it gets to be too much, and the top explodes off. So, don’t do that.

Instead, let whatever feeling is there be with you in the box, with the top off. Because then, what happens? Those molecules, yeah, they’ll continue to dart all over. But with the top off, eventually they will find their way out of the box. They will dissipate.

When you allow your feeling, whatever it is, to be with you and you carry it with you in a box with the top off, eventually it will disperse. It will not feel so intense.

Here’s the other thing, whatever feeling comes up for you related to your challenging relationship, don’t judge it. Instead of wasting energy getting irritated about how you feel, allow it. Don’t criticize yourself if you feel like you’re going backwards. Don’t beat yourself up if you find yourself reverting to old habits or old thought patterns. That doesn’t help you.

Getting angry at yourself for getting angry doesn’t move you forward, trust me. Allow it. Allow yourself to feel whatever comes up for you, but then decide what you want to do with it. You can decide to practice thinking differently about your relationship. In fact, that is entirely within your control.

I’ve given you loads of tools and ideas for practicing thinking in previous episodes. It can be as simple as declaring to yourself, “I do not think this way anymore.” Here’s what I want to offer to you to bring this all home. You and I are humans. Humans are messy, despite all of the self-help, mindset hacks, tools, concepts, and ideas.

Despite all of this, humans are messy. It doesn’t matter how much therapy or coaching or self-help books you invest in. As humans, we all have the capacity to revert and go back to what you know, even if it hurts you. So, in the case of your relationships, even if you’ve done your work and you’ve processed, and you are genuinely in a better place mentally and emotionally, it’s still there. That hurt and that pain, it’s still there.

You’ve coped with it and you’ve dealt with it, but it’s not erased. It’s not like it never happened. But what happens over time, is that when you do the work and process your emotions related to those difficult relationships, you build that muscle. There it is.

Your muscles for feeling get stronger; that’s putting in your reps. You can practice thinking differently about your relationships. And as you get stronger in that capacity, you will create a different outcome for yourself. If you commit to never giving up on this, you will succeed. You will feel more at peace. Your relationships do not have to change, but you can change. There’s a big difference there.

So, if and when those thought loops come back up for you, whether that’s now during the holiday season, or really at any time of the year for that matter, when you find yourself dealing with difficult emotions related to the challenging relationships you thought you had managed, let me offer you this:

Allow it, name it, let it be there with you. Feel it all the way through, like the box with its top off. And then, decide how you want to think. Decide how you want to feel about your relationship and practice that. Repeat it to yourself. Practice feeling into it and believing it to your core.

And don’t be thrown when it feels hard. You have not lost all your progress just because you feel yourself slip. You are not the same person you were years ago; you are older, smarter, stronger, and more powerful than you were before. And because of that, you have the capacity to change how you feel in your relationships, always.

I know this episode was a little off the rails. I didn’t go back to the books on this one. I didn’t look up any scientific research or review a stepwise process to dealing with a relationship. Instead, I’m sharing this with you as one messy human to another, who has gone through some junk with her family and came out on the other side still standing, even if I falter every now and then. I pride myself on the work I’ve done to evolve and grow and be a more responsible adult in this crazy world we live in. But that being said, I’m still human. I have messy days, I have messy relationships with my parents, and I don’t always have it together. No one does.

But if I can help you make a little more sense of your own difficult relationships, and help you realize that this is an ongoing process, and that while you may never fully be done, you most definitely can live more at peace with the challenging people in your life, then I’m doing my job. Your past, your relationships, your junk with your family, that does not have to define you; it is not who you are. You’re not trapped, you’re not stuck, and you are not powerless. You are not destined to repeat history, even if things happen that bring up difficult feelings and remind you of your past. Remember that your past is over. The past exists as nothing more than a story in your head.

And, you have the power to choose what you want to take from your past and leave the rest behind. You are not a kid anymore. You are an adult, and you don’t have to fix anything. You don’t have to change anything. You don’t have to repair any relationship with anyone. The only thing I’m asking you to do is keep going.

I would hope that you’re here listening to this because part of you believes that there is more available to you than what you experience in your own difficult relationship. And I want to shout it out from the rooftops that, yes, there is more possible for you. You are not your past. You are not your past. Okay?

All right. Thank you again for hanging out with me, and I’ll catch you again next week. If you like what you’ve been hearing, please review the show. I would love to get your feedback and ideas. Your suggestions have inspired episodes and will help me make the show better for you. Share this podcast with a friend, text a show link, share a screenshot, or post a link to the show on your social media. Be sure to tag me @CarrieHollandMD on either Instagram or Facebook so I can follow along and engage with you.

This is how we get the word out to other working moms who want to feel strong, inside and out. If you know someone who wants to feel better or eat and move differently but she is too tired or too busy, it is time to change things up. You know making that change starts with how you think, and that is what we do here on the Strong as a Working Mom podcast. I’ll see you next week.

Thanks for listening to Strong as a Working Mom. If you want more information on how to eat, move, and think, so you can live in the body you want, with the mind to match, visit me at CarrieHollandMD.com.

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