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Family Estrangement & The Holidays: A Guide To Navigating The Festive Period

Updated: Nov 28, 2023

Many of you who are reading this blog will have just celebrated Thanksgiving in the USA. Diwali, an important Hindu celebration, was only a few weeks before that. Then around the corner, we have Christmas.

All of these celebrations share a common theme. It is the social norm for family to come together and spend time together. As someone estranged from family, our nervous systems can be in a near constant state of activation during this time and the build up to it. The feeling of being abnormal can increase and our sense of self confidence can hit rock bottom.

The word most people use is that there is a stigma around having estranged family relationships in the holiday period. My research with Dr Lucy Blake at University of Cambridge confirms that many of us find the festive period the most challenging part of the year.

It can feel heart-breaking to watch social posts of a happy family Christmas, gift buying, and cooking. Many of us simply don’t have access to take part in this kind of 'normality'. It can be a struggle to figure out if presents are relevant or welcome, and we may have nobody to cook for other than ourselves. And the decision making around all this can lead to more feelings of resentment and abandonment. I remember multiple Christmas's where I felt so very happy that Boxing Day had arrived and the whole thing was done. It was that sweet day where Christmas and the festive period was as far away as it could possibly be!

The stigma around family estrangement

I spent my Christmas in the USA last year. When watching TV in the days running up to Christmas, I was struck by a highly emotive advert about family dysfunction and abuse. It said very clearly that families should always be together, however much people may hurt you. There were images of people being physically hurt. This advert was in the middle of a sports game, which pulls in huge, huge audiences across the country. The authors of the advert had paid an unimaginable sum of money to transmit this message. It gave me a very uneasy feeling. It put forward this notion that the festive period is always a time for forgiveness, and putting the past behind us, and that we all should reconcile. There was so little room for nuance.

For a moment, I noticed that I felt really small and ashamed. I felt like I didn't matter, and I was totally unseen and judged in this message. I simply noticed this feeling, and I didn't react to it. Yet a younger version of myself would have reached for alcohol to numb that ego pain. I would have turned on myself and punished myself somehow. This is the stigma around estrangement at work.

Our difference and family pain can feel more foisted into the spotlight and it is crunchy to feel different to others. There can be a feeling of wanting to hide this part of our personal lives that is so vulnerable. Yet we may feel this pressure to explain or sometimes lie about our plans or situation. My very first piece of published writing in the UK nationals talks about me concealing my estrangement at Christmas. This stigma that we feel can also become apparent through conversations. Or it can be felt with the frustration of deciding what to do with Christmas day - whether to reject or accept friends' invitations.

One of my first appearances on BBC Breakfast, talking about estrangement at Christmas time was in 2015. Our Hidden Voices report had just come out and I was about to go speak to millions of people live. In the run up to that appearance, I had to constantly remind producers that I wouldn’t be saying that reconciliation at Christmas is always the right thing to pursue. At that time, social permission for taking space from family at Christmas was much lower than it is now, nearly a decade later.

It felt like a big win that I had at least been able to say that not all families find Christmas enjoyable. The agony aunt I was appearing with (who was great) made the concession that families who really felt challenged by being together should only spend short amounts of time in the same house. Those who felt traumatised should make a firm plan to leave after an hour or two. This was as far as it was allowed to go.

If it was traumatic to be with family, there was some kind of BBC permission to not spend the whole day together. I feel like that day in 2015 we took the first step towards putting a more nuanced view of the festive period out there. As it can feel like everyone is just feeling so much sparkly joy, and we are not. It can be so hard to be the one saying that I am not having a good time over here. This is especially true if we are prone to people pleasing.

You can watch the video of this BBC appearance from 2015 below.

Family estrangement and trauma

This notion of unconditional forgiveness and reconciliation that can be pushed at Christmas means so many of us feel isolation and loneliness. It certainly made me feel lonely when I watched that advert in the US last year. Why? I feel there are two main reasons.

The first being that putting the past behind us in a simple way and moving on isn’t that easy if we have experienced historic family trauma. It’s something that takes more than a few days and a quick decision. It’s a longer more sustained process that needs space, time and often professional intervention. Sometimes, the process of taking that space and time to heal means that spending time together with family members at Christmas feels impossible, and harmful to any kind of recovery. The social pressure rubs up against our healing.

The second reason is that, for many, it is simply not possible to bring people back into family life when they aren’t ready to reconcile and be part of it. So however much we might want to make right the difficulties in the relationship, the other person simply isn’t in the space or isn’t ready to do so.

This can be particularly hard when we feel there is a guessing game going on about why someone has put distance in place. As much as I encourage people to speak their truth, and bring issues to family members, sometimes there isn’t enough trust in the relationship to do this and feel safety.

We must not overlook that there are also significant traumas that can exist around the Christmas period itself. The pressure and the stress of the festive period can mean that people act out, and the prevalence of alcohol can add more fuel to the fire. This means that there may be many traumatic memories attached to this time of the year in particular. The more heightened our expectations are around a happy family Christmas the more disappointed we can feel.

Yet the reality is that family relationships, even if there is no estrangement, can trigger so many emotions. Rarely is it as straightforward, loving and supportive, as the media might like us to think. There is death, marriage, birth and all the change that human life brings. Christmas can give all families a mirror as to how much has moved on. Family is the container that sees it all, and embraces all the chaos that comes with human change. If we had families full of relationship experts then perhaps we’d stand a chance of processing these changes in a healthy way. (I wonder, though, if a family full of relationship experts may have its own challenges).

However, the reality is that for many of us, our families are full of unhealed traumas. They are far from perfect. We exist in families where emotional warmth and love may not have been modelled in generations previously, and where boundaries around behaviour can feel like a rejection and unacceptable. This makes handling change and conflict challenging without external support. For many people in estranged families, learning how to relate in a healthy and available way will take time. Many family members really do need to have unconditional love and acceptance modelled to them in a therapeutic relationship so they can pass it on.

I talked to Wendy Savage, who specialises in family estrangement and trauma. She is a recent trainee from my Standing Together programme for professionals and a trauma therapist in the UK. I asked her for some background on family estrangement and trauma.

“When a family relationship breaks down, we can experience a whole spectrum of emotions. We may live with disbelief, anger, depression, sadness or anxiety. Sometimes our distress has deeper roots than the estrangement. There may be a history of feeling rejection in our family of origin or painful and traumatic memories in our childhood. Sometimes we may have received messages about being unlovable, which are re-triggered by the gulf between us and our loved one.”

“Unhealed trauma can affect our nervous system causing fight, flight or freeze responses. If we are without a support system, our world can become very small. We desperately distract ourselves from our emotions, meaning we lose touch with positive and negative experiences. We can become depressed.”

“When an estrangement happens, we can sometimes believe we have no purpose without the other person in our lives. “Who am I if I am no longer a parent or grandparent?" We are left to focus on ourselves, and this can be a very unfamiliar place. We may believe that we cannot be happy without our role in the estranged person or family life. We may lay blame at their door for our unhappiness, making them responsible for us. We may lose our sense of identity.”

I strongly agree with Wendy on this point about identity. When we are left to focus on ourselves, this can be a very unfamiliar and uncomfortable role. Christmas is that very trigger that reminds us of this switch in our identity, which for many is not out of choice. If we are estranged, we aren’t thinking of someone else, and devoting time and energy to them and their experience. If we are thinking of ourselves, then we have to face ourselves. We can't people please if we have nobody to care about and please.

This unfamiliarity can feel lonely, and resentment can come from being left with all the feelings, and being left alone to sit with them. Especially on a day like Christmas. It is times like the festive period that amplify this change and amplify the grief we may feel around this loss of identity. We may be desperate to simply focus on others, so we don’t feel anything and don't have to sit with our emotions. Many of us fear Christmas as we fear feeling.

Why are we so afraid of our feelings during the festive period?

The festive period is like most other times of the year in the fears that arise fundamentally. The fear around feeling emotions and listening to ourselves is as real as it is in July or April. Many of us are simply not accustomed to allowing our feelings at any time of the year. Yet, unlike regular times of the year, it really doesn’t feel safe to have negative emotions when it is a festive time. This is because we are all being told on a national level to feel joy, happiness and appreciation. Anything else is not perceived as socially acceptable.

Thus, so many of us will experience anger at this time of the year because we are being told we should be happy at a traumatic and triggering time. There isn’t that much room to express grief and anger with others, and speak aloud what is happening authentically. We don’t want to be the one bringing down the mood, especially if we are inherent people pleasers. It might not feel at all safe to be authentic.

I talked to Kreed Revere, a specialist coach, who also recently completed my Standing Together training programme. She talked to me about anger during the festive period.

“In the realm of estrangement, anger is a force that, when harnessed wisely, can be a transformational. Acknowledging anger allows individuals to explore the root causes of their pain, set healthy boundaries, and advocate for their emotional well-being. For estranged moms, it can serve as a catalyst for self-reflection and growth, while estranged adult children can channel anger into asserting their autonomy.

“Surviving the holidays amidst estrangement involves embracing the power of anger as a tool for positive change. By working with an estrangement expert, individuals can navigate the intricate dance of emotions, transforming anger into a force that fuels self-discovery and healing rather than more separation from the self or others.”

It’s very possible that anger can become internalised, unless we find a way of supportively processing it. This is why I think it’s particularly helpful to reach out for support, and to be able to authentically express what is real for you over this period in a non-judgemental environment.

It’s also very important to remember that you are one of millions of people worldwide experiencing family estrangement over this festive period. Just the statistics alone can be helpful in reminding us that we aren’t as abnormal as we may sometimes feel.

Reclaiming Christmas

I am always of the belief that what happens in life will give us both challenge to work through, and liberation and strength as a result of walking the path. I am here for both of those aspects of life as a coach. So let's take a moment to look at the opportunity. The festive period could be viewed as an initiation – a challenge to help us form new ways of thinking and being with ourselves.

Even if you are resentful, which is natural, you are still strong, and hopefully courageous enough to recognise what you need to show yourself love. Can I be strong for myself today and through this period? What can I do to really show myself love? How can I appreciate and love my own company?

If we ask ourselves these questions each day, and take it day by day, we take the pressure and enormity away. Sometimes we need to feel we are in control of the future, but it isn't always that helpful to get ahead of the present moment. What can I do now? What will show myself love right now?

There are many ways to show ourselves love over this period. It will be different for each one of us. One of the ways is to not engage with the festive period at all and fly away. I have shown myself love in this way often. Another loving action may be to spend the day alone, and honour what you need in terms of not pretending to be joyful and happy. You could be open and honest with the people around you about the feelings you have, and what support you need from them at this difficult time of the year. This might help you spend time with them in a more authentic way. You can choose to skip the Christmas party if you don't feel like the small talk, or you can learn some lines to help deflect attention from your plans. It's loving to say sometimes that you don't want to talk about it. We don't owe anyone our story and we don't have to justify why we are different.

So many of us believe deeply, perhaps subconsciously, that love is conditional. If we are a certain way, or shape ourselves into something that can be loveable, then we will receive love. We exile parts of us that we feel aren’t going to bring us connection and mould ourselves into being perfect. Yet we lose our authenticity. We lose the parts that really do need the love of others and ourselves to heal.

I am a big believer in trying things out in terms of mind set and beliefs. This festive period, you could try out believing that you are simply entitled to support from those who love you, and you don’t have to earn it, or be anything other than who you are right now to receive it. What would that feel like? I am going through something really challenging right now. I deserve support from myself, and others.

This could be the most important Christmas gift you could ever develop for yourself. The gift of being on your own side without feeling you need to be different. How can I notice guilt, but not go so deep into feeling it that I back away from connection and feel like a burden? You aren’t a burden, you are a human and you deserve to been seen and supported at challenging times.

Coaches and therapists like Kreed, Wendy and myself are here for you to help you model that love and acceptance. If you are struggling and feeling anger and resentment, you can book a session with me here. It is a worthwhile investment and also a beautiful act of self-love to find support, nurture and encouragement.



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