As summer turns to fall and a chill creeps into the warm air, it’s a sign that the Jewish holiday season is upon us. In addition to the spiritual preparation this time of year entails, many of us are thinking about more pragmatic matters – where we will be spending the holidays, what food to make and which family or friends we will be with for the various holiday celebrations. This time of year can be both spiritually and psychologically intense, as families come together for the holidays. These family get-togethers can have multiple permutations—grown children visit parents, siblings visit siblings, parents visit grown children and their children. But whatever form these visits take, they present families with both a challenge and an opportunity. The opportunity is that families who normally do not see one another or live in close proximity to one another can spend large lengths of time together, bonding and reconnecting. The challenge is that families who normally do not see one another or live in close proximity to one another may not be used to spending large lengths of time together, and this may lead to stress and conflict.
In addition, when young adults or adults return to their childhood homes for holidays, it is not uncommon for them and their parents to regress to old roles. Adult children might find themselves behaving in petty, immature ways that are more characteristic of teenagers than of full-fledged adults. Adult siblings might fight with one another and tease one another. Feelings of competition, long dormant, might be reactivated and acted out between family members. Parents may start behaving toward their adult children as if they were still children, telling them what to do or undermining their parenting of their own children.
Furthermore, the demands of the holidays, with seemingly endless meals and trips to synagogue, can lead to fatigue and stress. Across all Jewish denominations, the High Holiday prayer services are some of the longest of the year, and can be a grueling test of endurance and attention span for even the most seasoned synagogue attendee. For those of us who have to miss work in order to observe the holidays, it can be stressful to be in and out of the office, as we fear the judgment or negative evaluations of our colleagues. For those of us who are observant Jews, this year, which has three separate 3-day Yamim Tovim, Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot, and Shmini Atzeret-Simchat Torah, has the potential to be particularly difficult to navigate without stress.
Psychological theory and practice, preoccupied as it is with human behavior, emotion and relationships, is uniquely positioned to provide insights about how to approach the challenges and opportunities of the Jewish holidays. How can families avoid friction and utilize the holidays to grow closer? What strategies can people use to not only survive, but also thrive through the Jewish holidays? What follows are some guidelines, based in the psychological literature, for navigating interactions with friends and loved ones over the holidays.
1. Disconnect in order to connect.
Use the holiday season to reconnect with others—disconnect from social media and focus on face-to-face interactions. Research shows that an over-reliance on digital communication can result in feelings of real-world isolation and loneliness, emotional disconnection, anxiety and mental exhaustion. This time of year can be a wonderful opportunity to have meaningful conversations and interactions with loved ones and friends.
2. Change your perspective and lean into the holidays.
It is very easy to grumble or be anxious about how many days of work you are missing or worry about all the work waiting for you when you return after the holiday. While this anxiety is perfectly understandable, you are not doing yourself any favors by worrying about the future. If you are missing work for the holidays, look at it not as a loss but as an opportunity to focus on what matters most to you—friends, family and community. Letting go of these worries, while difficult, will make it easier to enjoy the holiday moments.
3. Know your boundaries and work to maintain them.
When spending significant lengths of time with family, it is important to know and maintain your boundaries. Having healthy boundaries means knowing and understanding what your limits are. Two key feelings that indicate that our boundaries are being violated are anger and resentment. If you’re experiencing these feelings, ask yourself, what is causing that? What is it about this interaction, or the person’s expectation, that is bothering me? It’s important to remember that it is ok—even appropriate—to set boundaries with family members. That may mean telling your parent, “Please don’t wake me up for synagogue, as I want to sleep late,” or saying to your sibling, “Please don’t speak to me that way, as I find it condescending.” Setting boundaries can also mean taking time for yourself. Being on top of family for long meals or for multiple days in a row can easily lead to tension and stress between family members. It can be helpful to go for walks, read a book or mix up your social encounters and meet with different groups of friends. While setting boundaries can often foster guilt or the sense we are rejecting someone, boundaries actually help to create more secure, healthy relationships. It’s most commonly a lack of boundaries that leads to issues among families.
4. Ask for help.
Working hard over the holidays can breed feelings of resentment toward other family members who are not helping. I am mainly speaking to the mothers out there, many of whom slave away in their kitchens for much of the holidays and who for some reason think that they must be able to “do it all” on their own. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and share the household responsibilities over the holidays. You might find that a more collaborative approach to holiday preparation is more enjoyable to all parties. Different family members can be delegated discrete tasks, such as pre-holiday shopping, cooking specific meals or setting the table and cleaning up after the meal. Accepting help does not take away from the important role that mothers can play in running the household over the holidays. It simply shifts the role from that of one-woman-band to that of orchestra conductor, to use a metaphor.
5. Healthy Diet = Healthy Mind
With all the elaborate and delicious meals over the holidays, it is very easy to overindulge and eat too much or eat a lot of sugary foods. Don’t forget that you are what you eat. The foods you eat directly affect the structure and function of your brain and, ultimately, your mood. Multiple studies have found a correlation between a diet high in refined sugars and impaired brain function—and even a worsening of symptoms of mood disorders, such as depression. So keep that in mind before you reach for that second slice of Aunt Trudy’s honey cake.
I hope you and your families have an enjoyable and meaningful holiday season and a year full of personal and interpersonal growth. Shana Tova U’Metuka!
By Benjamin Gottesman, PsyD