The holiday season is joyous for most people, but that joy is complicated when you’re the one carrying the bulk of the emotional labor in the family: You’re the holiday magic-bringer. The one who puts up and decorates the tree. The one who hosts and invites family over for dinner. And if it weren’t for you, no one else would do it.
Many people, especially women, feel as if they’re responsible for the lion’s share of the work during the holidays. The last few years, a number of viral essays and Facebook posts have highlighted the issue of emotional labor, or the weight and effort of managing nearly everything at home ― especially the seemingly invisible jobs no one in your family acknowledges. (Tasks like scheduling dentist appointments, making sure the kids’ lunches are packed, helping them with homework assignments and navigating any and all emotional crises under your roof. It’s the type of stuff that keeps your household running like a well-oiled machine.)
During the holidays, those thankless tasks might include sending out holiday cards, finding your out-of-town in-laws a place to stay and making sure the stockings are stuffed and The Elf is on the Shelf.
“You’re constantly trying to determine if others are pleased with some aspect of the holiday, yet no one else is helping,” said Marie Land, a psychologist in Washington, D.C. “If you’re handling most of the emotional labor, you probably feel that if you don’t plan things literally nothing will happen.”
How do you know if you’re just stressed out or dealing with a genuine labor imbalance? Therapists share a few signs you’re carrying all the emotional weight in your family and offer advice on how to change the dynamic in your household.
You’re not enjoying the holidays because you’re too busy checking things off to-do lists.
You used to love the holidays, but the whole “it’s the most wonderful time of the year” thing has been lost on you the last few years; you’re too busy checking things off a never-ending list to enjoy the special little moments with your family.
“The pressure to make things perfect can ruin anyone’s holiday,” said Kurt Smith, a therapist in Roseville, California. “If you feel like it’s all up to you to create the quintessential holiday experience, through everything from decorating to gift giving, you may make things superficially nice for everyone else, but you’re likely to feel miserable yourself. That constant worry about getting everything done drains you.”
The fix: When Smith helps clients who feel emotionally burdened and burned out, he asks them to focus on two things: expectations and boundaries.
Ask yourself if your expectations for yourself are unrealistic, unfair or ultimately unnecessary. Does everything on that massive to-do list really need to get done? Will grandma really flip out if you don’t make the yams exactly how her mother did back in the day? Probably not.
“Reevaluating expectations is important all times of the year but especially during the holidays,” he said. “Setting boundaries for ourselves as well as with others is necessary for all aspects of health ― mental, emotional and relational.”
You don’t have the emotional bandwidth to make decisions.
You push yourself to plan things out to a T, but it’s increasingly difficult to make decisions. When you’re emotionally depleted, planning out a dinner menu or buying and sending gifts to out-of-state relatives are tall tasks, said Kristin Davin, a psychologist in New York City.
“And then after you make decisions, you might get short and irritated with your family,” she said. “When you’re using so much emotional energy, it’s common for someone to reach their limits and become more irritated and have a short fuse. We all have our limits. Recognizing what this is is key.”
The fix: Give yourself a break. Put space between you and family goings-on by treating yourself to something that relaxes you (or makes you feel more in control). Self-care is never more important than during the holidays, Davin said.
“Take care of yourself,” she said. “It could be as simple as a daily walk, meditation, speaking to a friend, or taking time in the morning or whenever to have a cup of coffee and ‘just be.’”
You’re so stressed out you’re starting to feel it physically.
The stress and general anxiety associated with emotional labor often start to take a toll on your body, said Samantha Rodman, a psychologist in Rockville, Maryland.
“You may start feeling somatic symptoms, like headaches, stomachaches and back pain,” she said. “Your brain and body are feeling the effects of the stress you are under.”
The fix: Pay attention to your breathing patterns when you’re feeling anxious or stressed. Typically, an overwhelmed or anxious person takes small, shallow breaths. When you concentrate on taking slow, steady breathes, the tension in your body starts to slip away.
You don’t mind planning things, but it’s frustrating to know that if you didn’t do it, no one else would.
At some point ― and maybe at your own choosing ― you became the point person for holiday get-togethers: You host, offer to cook and make sure everyone is invited to all the dinners and events. Through the years, you’ve gotten so good at doing it all, family members may start to think you relish your responsibilities and the control.
“Your relatives might think, ‘Oh, she loves that role’ or ‘He does that because that’s his holiday gift to himself,’ but it’s still a lot of pressure,” said Sanam Hafeez, a psychologist in New York City. “Those who take on the bulk of holiday planning lose sleep, sacrifice work, family time and self-care [when] planning and executing holiday events. Those of us who have chosen to carry the torch or act in place of parents feel a great deal of responsibility and self-criticism.”
The fix: Make use of shortcuts this year ― maybe you cook and freeze whatever you can beforehand or order your sides from a restaurant. Then assign smaller tasks to others and trust that they can handle it, Hafeez said.
“In the lead-up to holiday events, you might even ask a trusted family member to pull you out and send you to get your nails done or for a jog when you look like you’re in too deep,” she said. “The little things add up and become much bigger things, so it’s important to ask for help. Start a group chat and see if relatives are willing to pick up a job or two.”
Your relationships are strained or being damaged.
This time of year should bring us closer to those we love. If the opposite is true ― you’re slowly growing resentful toward them ― that should be a warning sign that something’s not right, Smith said.
“Most people seek to avoid conflict during the holidays, but you can pick up on resentment when someone gives the silent treatment,” he said. “I saw that happening between the hosts of a Christmas party I was at last weekend.”
The fix: Again, the answer is delegating responsibilities.
“I suggest that families take a little time to sit down together and make a list of what they want to do and what needs to be done,” Smith said. “This should be an enjoyable time of year, and many of the ‘chores’ are actually things that can be fun when they’re not being done under pressure.”
Many people take on more of the responsibilities than they need to during the holidays because they’ve neglected to ask for help.
“This year, ask,” he said. “You may be surprised how willing others will be and how much more enjoyable the holidays can be when you lighten the load.”