Opting out of holidays and traditions: Yes, it’s okay. No, don’t feel guilty.

18 - MountainsI skipped Thanksgiving this year. And Easter.

I’ve been to do this for a while. Christmas is on my list to get out of next, but that one always feels more complicated. It seems best to ease in with the lesser holidays.

Why am I opting out? Part of it is that I have no true connection to traditions that I’m expected to participate in. Spiritually and politically, there is no resonance in these days for me.

Of course, I know that for some, the holidays bring tremendous joy. I’m not out to take that away from anyone. But for years, I’ve always been highly aware of how many people in my immediate circles feel pressured to participate in things “just because it’s the way it’s always been.” Myself included.

And yet it’s hard to say no to these obligations.

It’s hard to say no in our society on a whole, I find.

People get uncomfortable with the word “no.” Everyone wants a yes: “Yes, I will be there.” “Yes, you can have that.” “Yes, I can make an exception for you.”  

The word no brings up defenses on both sides of the conversation. If you say, “No,” the immediate response is often, “Why not?” Or, “You have to.”

There is not a lot of respect for “no.” When someone doesn’t want to hear the word “no,” they use it as grounds for negotiation. They make us feel wrong for deciding something for ourselves.

When people asked me recently what I was doing for the Thanksgiving long weekend, and I said, “Nothing,” I got some emotional responses. I was surprised by the small, sad sounds – “Aw,” and “Oh” – that came at me, followed by: “But no one should be alone on Thanksgiving.”

“It’s okay. I’m opting out. It’s what I want,” I had to explain.

What I didn’t get into was the deeper why. Yes, on the surface, these things don’t connect to my path, my beliefs. But if I had warm memories around them, if they gave me something to look forward to, if I had a closeness with my family that I know some of my friends have, it might be different.

But that’s not what everyone has at home.

It wasn’t until I was in my late 20s that I realized people had real, actual friendships with their parents. That some people don’t fight with their mothers, ever. That some people go out with their dads just to catch up like old friends.

I honestly thought that kind of thing only existed on television.  

There are too many knee-jerk reactions and cliché responses about family and love. Like most of these phrases, they are not a one-size-fits-all ideal. When someone says, “Well, they’re our family, so we have to love them,” I think, do we really, always?

How often have people felt pushed or guilted into spending time with family members who have caused so much pain that it take a lifetime to heal, if it does at all?

How many of us go back to abusive situations, emotional dynamics, shame, or toxicity because a well-meaning partner, co-worker, friend, or acquaintance says, “It’s just for a few hours,” or, “It will make your mother happy,” or, “Your dad’s getting old. He might not be around next year.”

Again, it goes back to the ability to say “no.”

Sometimes we have to put up boundaries around family. Even if it means breaking tradition.

One of the worst pieces of advice I ever received came my way a number of years ago. I was trying to sort through a lot of confusion about things that I had gone through at home, things that were so intense and so difficult that they drove me to leave at the age of 17.

“Don’t be mad at your mother,” a friend said. Her voice was pleading. Her forehead was knotted. She looked so, so sad. My friend’s father had died not long before. She came from a tight family and had a good relationship with her mother. I didn’t realize it at the time, but she was answering from a place that was limited by her own experiences.

It’s hard for us to understand what someone else is going through with their family if we only know love and protection at home. It’s hard to imagine what it might be like otherwise.

I was caught off guard by my friend’s reaction. Suddenly, I felt guilty. I wondered if I’d been wrong about everything.

It only added to my confusion. I tried to work on things. I went to therapy. I made a lot of efforts to repair relationships with people who, ultimately, were and are emotionally unavailable to me.

My parents came from a generation where problems were not to be discussed. Personal lives were expected to stay private. People drank to avoid feeling anything. Perfection and emotional detachment were ideals.

When I was really young, my mother often stormed out of the house whenever I started crying, unwilling to deal with it.

As I got older, if I did need to talk about something, it was treated as a burden, or dismissed altogether. My mother would often respond with, “Why are you putting this on me?”

It’s hard to want to go home for special occasions when there isn’t much pulling you back there. For a few years, when I was a kid, my parents hosted on the holidays.

But some people in my family drank. Heavily.

An uncle pissed all over the bathroom counter one Christmas. My mother, who lived to clean the house, was the one to discover it.

Another year, when I was elven or twelve, a couple of family members were so drunk at dinner that they spilled half the food all over the rug. Their hands were too shaky to hold anything.

Halfway through dinner, one of them got up, put on a record, and began to sing and dance for the rest of us.

“I hope they don’t start throwing up,” my mom whispered to me.

If my parents watered down a glass of wine, an argument would rise up. Our relatives knew, and they wanted the real deal.

Later, my parents would talk as they did the dishes. My mother was always heated. My father was defensive.

Eventually, they decided it was “easier not to bother.” Looking back, I see that part of this was reflective of their own ways of dealing with things, which was to not deal with them.

Rather than talking about the bigger problem – and drinking was a problem in our family, no question – my parents just decided not to invite anyone back again: Out of sight, out of mind.

Holidays became limited to just the three of us. As I got older it, it served to highlight the emotional unavailability between my parents and me, the loneliness that slept under our beds.

As I moved into adulthood and no longer lived at home, I noticed that the TV was becoming a bigger and bigger presence in my parents’ lives. When I would visit, my dad would turn the volume up on the television whenever I tried to start a conversation. “I can’t hear what they’re saying,” he would snap, looking only at the screen. My mom would often get on the phone and talk to other people for hours rather than talking with me.

I had no idea why they kept inviting me over.

When my father died in hospital, my mother and I stood there with his body between us. Neither of us reached for each other. My mother offered nothing to me, no hug, no consolation.

Looking back, I didn’t make any gestures to her, either.

Emotional availability is something I’ve been thinking of a lot this year. I need it, desperately. I crave it. And one of the reasons I have to start saying no, to challenge the arbitrary traditions and expectations placed upon me, is because I have to find ways to create more space for different connections and relationships now.

People can say, “Your mom might not be around much longer,” but who knows? I might not be, either. None of us know how much time we have, and time seems to go by faster every day. We just assume we’ll live on.

Some people spend their whole lives doing things to please others. I would rather live honestly and show up with sincerity than fake my way through any relationship, especially for the sake of tradition.

When people say, “Family is everything,” I have no idea what it feels like to speak that and mean it. And maybe that’s part of the reason why I need to find time and distance for myself right now, so that I can define my own rules to live by.  

You might be feeling the same. It’s okay to opt out. It’s okay to break the routine.

And it’s okay to say no, and expect your decision to be respected. It doesn’t matter what your reason is.

Let’s stop looking for justification in every action and just let things be as they need to.

Until next time,

Liz xo

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