Hey there mental health miracles. As we marinate in the stew of the holiday season, I’d like to share two words that are serving as mantras for me this year: permission and choice.

Recently I was sitting in a circle of women discussing Thanksgiving and someone commented on the “feeling of anxiety” in the room. Some women were really excited about Thanksgiving, delighted by the coziness of family tradition and the opportunity to intentionally share gratitude. Others felt ambivalent about the origins of the holiday and the problematic narrative surrounding it. Many women felt stressed about to-do lists or worried about family dynamics, sharing vulnerably about how substance use, political opposition, or childhood trauma feels magnified during holiday time. Some people love this string of winter holidays, some people hate them. Some people feel choked by grief and loneliness, others buoyed by wonder and joy. Most people feel some combination of all of these. There’s something about this time of year that amplifies the human experience and what often accompany that amplification are the stories we tell ourselves about how we “should” be feeling. In my experience, it’s not really thoughts and feelings themselves that cause us distress so much as the thoughts and feelings we have about the thoughts and feelings. Does that make sense? In light of this experience, I’m trying to practice extending myself the grace of permission this year. Permission to feel what I feel, think what I think, and let those things be okay, no matter what they are. Of course, being angry at my mother doesn’t mean I’m going to rage-carve a turkey at her. I have lots of tools for inhabiting that anger with compassion for all involved. And I’m not going to judge myself for that anger.

Another helpful framework that came from that same circle of women is the idea that just because a tradition exists doesn’t mean it has to continue. Or maybe it continues, but it continues without my involvement. For many years I ignored my mental and emotional needs (not to mention my desires for establishing my own traditions with my spouse and children) because the way my family of origin celebrated the holiday was “the way it’s always been done.” Who was I to alter a 30+ year-long tradition of holiday protocol? Wasn’t it more important to keep my family-of-origin happy, not be selfish, and go along to get along, even if it meant my being a cranky mom and stressed-out partner? Answer: NO. It’s not more important. I am a grown-ass adult with needs and wants that are just as important as anyone else’s and it’s okay for me to choose differently. I have choices. And so do you. Setting boundaries with our people can feel awkward and painful. And if we’re not in the habit of doing so, it can really rock the boat. Choosing something outside the norm of family culture and tradition can hurt feelings. Here are a few of the things I consider when thinking through making a possibly disruptive choice.

What is my motivation? Am I saying “no” to thanksgiving with 30 relatives because I want to stick it to my parents or because it feels important to have a cozy quiet thanksgiving in my own home with my kids and partner?

What is the lesser of evils in any given situation? Going to family Christmas means my mom is happy but I have to deal with drunk-and-handsy Uncle Larry. Not going means I feel safe, but my mom’s feelings are hurt. There’s not always a win-win ending to all of these scenarios. It’s worth considering what each choice will cost.

Do I feel the need to qualify my decision? When adults set boundaries with adults, we share our choice and then it’s the responsibility of all adults to tend to our own responses. If I’m compelled to defend myself or explain my decision, I’m perpetuating a dynamic in which I am either a child, a people-pleaser, or fulfilling the role of peace-keeper. It’s okay to just say “not this year.” Its okay to say “we’ll be there for a few hours but won’t be staying overnight.” It’s okay to simply say “no.”

Wishing everyone a holiday season filled with permission, choice, and freedom. Love, Lindsey