Dear Queer Abby,
I’m getting anxious about Xmas. Being around (closed-minded) family. Any tips or mantras I should be working with?
Queer in Queensland
Dear Q in Q,
The best thing that ever happened to holidays was realizing I didn’t have to be around my family to celebrate them.
I had about two hours of intense guilt the first time I chose not to attend biological Christmas, but after that, I felt free! The clouds parted, the steady drumbeat of “Rebel Girl” kicked in, and warm chunks of vegan gingerbread rained down from the heavens.
What was once forced attendance at the lighting of a shopping plaza in the 20-degree Kansas City cold (with people who communicate almost exclusively via passive-aggressive jokes) became a warm, glittering group of talkative gender-queers and homosexuals gathered near a tofurkey and cider, laughing over bad first dates and Apples to Apples. This is the alchemy of holiday boundaries!
If you must be around your family or other closed-minded individuals, I wish you my very best and I send you the astral-projected spirit of Ponyo, a soft, nine-pound chihuahua mix, who wants to sit on your lap eating scraps off your plate while offering a listening ear and unrelenting support.
Please take that visualization with you.
(P.S. Ponyo is still alive, just very skilled at astral projection and spiritual face-licking.)
On a practical level, here is my very best holiday advice for queers who have to spend time with their families-of-origin this holiday season:
1. Take Breaks.
Think about it ahead of time. How long can you hang out with any of these people without a blowup or meltdown of some kind?
I would personally say a 30-minute nap/phone break once every two hours, but that’s me.
2. Stay in your own space if you can.
If you can afford a hotel, a hostel, any place that is private where you can stare at a wall and rock after hanging out with your family, I recommend it. At the very least, find a space where you can shut the door and lock it.
3. Try to have your own transportation and escape plan.
You might break the bank calling an Uber after hopping out of a moving vehicle full of homophobes on the side of the road, but it will be WORTH IT. This is your mental health, comfort, and safety. It is not a time to be stingy.
4. Keep the focus on yourself.
Especially if you trip out on family members who drive you up the wall.
If you find yourself spiraling, thinking of the ways they are imperfect and are living their lives wrong or have the wrong opinions or ways of acting, just say the mantra: “I will focus on myself.”
What do YOU need in this moment? Is there a way you could support yourself in this situation? Are you focusing in on them because you’re uncomfortable or trapped? How can you amplify your own comfort in this particular moment?
A walk? A nap? A snack?
Let them be as freaky as they want to be, but if you are becoming irritable and grabbing for your gavel, make the choice to remove yourself and go look at astrological memes until you feel calm again.
5. Front-load your food needs.
A metaphor. Here’s some real talk: I’m vegan AND food is one of my love languages. I give and receive snacks as an act of deep nourishment and affection.
Thus, when I am at a giant joyful dinner with one dry lettuce leaf on my plate as everyone else is going ballistic on a highly-anticipated and carefully prepared smorgasbord, I’m going to enter a grim place, emotionally-speaking.
But that is my problem, not their problem.
I’m the weird eater when I’m in Kansas. I get that. So, I try to have expectation management. I assess whether the host understands what vegan is, whether they have access to that kind of food, and the likelihood that the information will stick and there won’t be bacon crumbles hidden in the brussels sprouts.
I front-load when I need to (pre-eating so that my basic needs are already met and I can show up graciously to the meal without a feeling of scarcity), or I bring my own stuff. If my favorite thing is vegan gravy and my distant relatives are in no way equipped to prepare that item, I am *happy* to bring my own.
If you show up and the only thing you can eat is rolls, please remember this isn’t your last meal. This isn’t even your only meal option That Day. You can throw yourself into a Chipotle guacamole vat on the way back to the suburban hotel, or recreate Christmas dinner with your very best gluten-intolerant friends as soon as you get back to your home planet of Queerius.
There is abundance for all of us! Of love and understanding and of food we can digest. Even if it’s not at this particular table, it is just around the corner.
6. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do, and you don’t have to talk about anything you don’t want to talk about. (Even if people really really want you to.)
This is it. This is your life. You have autonomy.
Even in family structures. Even if you didn’t grow up believing that, it is true.
You can say “I don’t really want to talk about that” or “I don’t want to do that” and just leave it there.
People might give you pushback or start to guffaw, but you get to have your boundaries. No need to justify; no need to explain. Just shrug and keep your mouth shut. If they keep pushing, that’s on them.
7. THINK ABOUT YOUR BOUNDARIES AHEAD OF TIME.
Are you okay talking about politics? Your gender identity? Your (as my parents call it) “lifestyle”?
Decide what feels okay to talk about (dogs, the weather, changes in the neighborhood) and what does not.
What do you like about any of these family members? Is there a way you can engage with them in that way?
Make a list for yourself of what you will and will not talk about. Read this list to a friend (or your dog) before you go, so you can hear yourself saying it out loud and remember.
Keep it in your pocket if you need to, and read this in the guest-room during one of your state-mandated 30-minute nap breaks.
Back in the mix, before you jump in on a relative’s problematic conversation-starter, ask yourself: Is it worth it? Will getting riled up at the dinner table help you in the long run? If you’re going to want to tear off your skin regardless of the conversation, then I say keep it light. Smile and nod. If you are feeling robust around different subjects, go for it.
But I’m here to support you, reader, not to change the minds and hearts of your ding-dong relatives. The onus of education doesn’t always need to be on the person who is Other.
If you *want* to send them an article or have a heart-to-heart phone call about their behavior when you are not a sitting duck in a room full of hunters, great. But it gets to be on your own timeline, not in response to confrontation, and at the end of the day, you don’t even have to.
You just get to live your life in a way that brings you joy and peace, and if they decide to use the resource known as The Internet to educate themselves on how to be a decent human being, they can figure it out without you having depleted your reserves.
Tip: A nice way to stop arguing is to say “You might be right” and leave it there. In therapeutic environments, “You might be right” is code for “I’m done arguing with you, it’s not worth my time.”
8. Shift your perspective.
Maybe you have a relative who is old and batty. They cannot get on the same political or identity page with you to save their life. Are they doing this out of malice, or their own mental limitations? What tools for living were they given by their parents? They may not have the thing you want because they never received it themselves.
You might have an incredible set of skills for listening, empathy and reflection based on years of therapy or lesbian processing, but some relatives just aren’t there. It doesn’t mean they’re better or worse, it just means that you may be wishing for water from a dry well.
If the intention of your relatives is sweet and kind, and your intention in seeing them is that you are doing an act of service to yourself (for your own conscience, making time for a geriatric family member before they’re gone) and to them, remember that.
You’re not there because you have so much in common and you’re trying to be best buddies — you’re there to show up and give warmth to a person who is trying their best. It may not be perfect, they may never Get It, but you also don’t have to take that on.
Good luck with your family, please feed astral-projected Ponyo anything you’d like that is not onions, mushrooms or raisins, and have a very very happy holiday. I have your back.