Ask Polly’s Holiday Survival Guide

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Your fail-proof guide to having a great time at home over the holidays. Photo: Corbis

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When you picture going home for the holidays, maybe you imagine a sparkling Christmas tree, hot sugar cookies fresh from the oven, eggnog with whipped cream, and ten straight days just to pad around your parents' house in dirty socks, humming "Joy to the World." Here's what you don't imagine: your (bossy!) sister barking orders as you circle a packed parking structure at the mall, your (deluded!) brother loudly admiring Donald Trump's "courage" over a tense game of Monopoly, your (borderline?) mother picking fights with everyone over how high to keep the thermostat.

How do you bite your tongue and stop from strangling someone? How do you keep from breaking down in tears at the dinner table? How do you avoid becoming depressed and ashamed of your bad family against a backdrop of sickeningly sweet holiday cheer that only serves as a constant reminder of how warm and loving family life should be, but somehow never is?

Here is your failproof guide to having a great time at home over the holidays. Okay, failproof might not be the right word. And “a great time" might be a stretch. But if you follow these steps, you will at least survive the holidays.

1. Visualize despair, disappointment, and chaos.

On your flight home, don't imagine warm embraces, the clinking of Champagne glasses, and the exchange of thoughtful gifts. Imagine the worst-case scenario. Imagine your dad greeting you by asking, "Did you put on some weight or something?" Imagine your sister rolling her eyes at everything you say. Imagine your mother's Jack Russell grabbing the smoked trout off the coffee table and eating it under the couch. Imagine yourself feeling queasy and insulted and overwhelmed. Imagine bursting into tears in front of everyone over something unfair your mother said in passing. Most important, don't imagine yourself being calm, letting it all slip off your back like a duck.

It sounds counterintuitive, but if you picture yourself at your absolute best over the course of your entire holiday together, you're going to feel angry at yourself when you're facedown on your childhood bed overcome by homicidal urges.

2. Remember that all families are taxing in one way or another.

One of the worst things about visiting home is that it can feel sad and embarrassing, just how screwy and aggressively strange your family is. Sadly, most of us are at least mildly allergic to our own families. If you don't have a mother who cares way too much about what other people think, then you probably have a mother who talks too loudly in public or squeezes margarine into your gourmet green beans. If you don't have a brother who loves Trump then you probably have a brother who moved to Amsterdam and rarely visits home at all. Every family is crazy-making in its own special way. Unless your family vacations resemble group-therapy sessions, there are unresolved conflicts and unspoken resentments lingering in the air at all times. Fight that ambience, and you'll only feel depressed. Lean in, and all that contempt almost feels festive! And speaking of group therapy …

3. Don't try to turn your family vacation into a group-therapy session.

So you've been in therapy for a year, and you're amazed by what it's done for you. Anything feels possible! It's so clear now that everyone just needs to SAY WHAT THEY WANT AND NEED from everyone else, and everything will be fixed permanently, like magic!

Wrong. Your family doesn't want to be in therapy together. And even if they do, they definitely don't want YOU to be their therapist. You can't single-handedly heal all of your family's dysfunction. Attempting this maneuver over the holidays is a recipe for a giant, emotional explosion that ends with you weeping into your hands. Instead, meet your family where they are, and accept that most of them may never change. Work with what you have.

4. Be of service and do more than your share.

Being a lazy guest in your parent's home might feel familiar, but don't underestimate how exhausting it is for parents and hosts to hold everything together, cook, clean, watch people's kids, and maintain a reasonably positive attitude. If you don't feel like you're doing MORE than your share, you're probably not doing enough. And if you're a man relaxing in a room full of men while the women scurry around fetching things, for fuck's sake set things right and volunteer the whole lot of you to handle the cleanup while the ladies put their feet up with a glass of wine. CHANGE BEGINS WITH YOU.

5. Exercise every day.

For years when I was younger, I would abandon my exercise routine every time I went home for a visit, yet I'd still feel mystified when, after six straight days of lying in a near-prone position shoveling sugar cookies into my mouth, I inevitably wanted to rip someone's face off with my bare hands. These days, when I commit to exercising every day I'm home, the entire visit goes so much more smoothly.

Nothing soothes frayed nerves and simmering rage quite like a quick, icy jog around the block or an afternoon yoga class or even 15 minutes of mood-fortifying calisthenics. Taking your least favorite family member on a nice walk in the woods is a great way to clear the air and clear your mind. Likewise, NOT exercising is a great way to stew in your own juices until you explode. In fact, never exercising at all on a trip home is almost like actively choosing to feel depressed. But even with exercise in the mix …

6. Prepare to eat big platters of shit.

Remember that even if you're doing everything right, you're still going to be amazed at how badly things can go. It's no coincidence that when you're on your best behavior, someone else starts boiling over or goes on the attack. Dysfunction abhors a vacuum, and dysfunctional people hate so-called "enlightened" siblings or children because these people inadvertently shine an unwelcome light on their own shortcomings.

Remember that you can't just "be good" and expect everyone to treat you well. Prepare for big trouble, and then keep quiet and try to stay calm when trouble arrives. Accept your giant platter of shit gracefully. Eating a little shit can almost feel empowering. "See how I savor the shit platter you just served me? Impressive, no?”

7. Recognize that everyone else will feel like they are eating big platters of shit, too.

Every time you feel like you just got served a giant platter of shit, rest assured that many of the human beings around you feel the same way. Instead of focusing on your own suffering, try tuning in to the suffering of everyone else. See that pained smile? See how that snippy remark came on the heels of a perceived slight? Look closely at the ones who bite their tongues and eat in silence, because they're probably suffering the most.

Most families are ruled by shame. Everyone feels embarrassed of who they are, at some level. Everyone feels angry about how deeply the people they love misunderstand them, or even just wave off their needs, interrupt them, expect them to play the clown, be the responsible one, be the perfect one, whatever. Once you notice the shame, it can be pretty freeing. You can feel empathy for the flawed people around you, and for yourself. They're trying, bless their hearts. They are tolerating a lot.

8. Give yourself credit for doing your best, and try to enjoy the family you have no matter how crazy things can get.

The bottom line is that even when you're being generous and understanding on a visit home, you're still probably going to disappoint yourself. Somehow, it's just incredibly hard to be your best around the people who know you the best. You can feel like the most compassionate, expansive person around casual friends and acquaintances, but around your mother you just tend to feel reserved and a little grumpy. Who knows why? It's crucial to accept that you can be Jesus-like for the first few days of your holiday vacation, only to regress and snort fire a few days later. Forgive yourself! In fact, forgive yourself in advance! It's beautiful that you still try.

Just showing up for your family is enough. The fact that they show up, in spite of their own enormous obstacles, is enough. Remind yourself that families were custom-designed to torture each other. Step back and watch the chaos unfold, and try to feel love and compassion for everyone involved. We are all deluded and emotionally off-kilter. We all have pockets of extreme arrogance and pockets of denial. (Just because you can't see your own pockets doesn't mean they don't exist.) These are some of the people who love you the most. Appreciate these freaks for who they are. Savor this time, in all of its clumsiness and despair and disappointment. Savor each awkward attempt to connect. This won't last forever, and you might just miss it when it's gone.

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