I so look forward to the first day of autumn because it is the unofficial start of the holiday season in my book…even in 90-degree North Carolina weather. Finally, no excuses needed to deck your living space out with all of the pumpkins, apple-scented candles, leaf wreaths, and mini bales of hay propping up your “It’s Fall, Y’all”  sign. (Don’t mind the sweat I’m wiping off my brow to arrange my fall-themed front porch.) Soon to follow will be Halloween, the first official holiday of the season, and we’re off to the races. Before you know it, it will be January, and you’ll be 10 pounds heavier and never want to have another glass of wine or cider again!

After the holiday season, amidst all the merry-making and family gatherings, you may have gained more than pounds and that new-found desire for a detox. It’s possible that you also may harbor new resentments against family members for particular comments made at the dinner table. Or you may be out a few friends with whom you are no longer on speaking terms. Holidays bring people together in ways that can impact your social wellness, for better or for worse. Here are a few things I do or consider to maintain social wellness, even when I can’t control the topic that comes up at the dinner table.

Practice Self-Care

Bathtubs and face masks need not apply. Practicing self-care means keeping tabs on your own thoughts and emotions throughout the holiday season. Is there a memory connected with the holidays that makes you particularly sad? My family experienced a significant traumatic event during our Christmas season 4 years ago. On the anniversary of that accident, some of us will still feel heavy or sad thinking back on that day’s events. Many of us have lost loved ones or have been cut off from relationships that we miss or wish we could fix. Others may be facing new changes, such as not having our children home during the holidays for the first time. Take the space you need to process thoughts and cultivate the mental state you need to be in to meaningfully engage with friends and family during the holiday season. One thing I find helpful is journaling—and I typically dislike journaling. But, I discovered, sometimes we just need to write one word. Or sometimes, we need to write many, many words that make no sense. Or, we craft a poem in beautiful cadence and rhyme. Regardless, the goal is to process the thoughts and feelings that drive our interactions. If there’s any place of control for us during the hectic holiday season, it’s over our thoughts and mindsets.

Love the Common Ground

I am one of those Southerners that has friends and family who have voted for individuals that I do not approve of. I am surrounded by friends and family who do not understand my line of work and think that having a large criminal justice system and many people in jails and prisons are good things (after all, those people must be doing bad things to be in jail). It can be difficult to continually be educating them and sharing, as politely as possible, why I view things differently (e.g., why not everyone needs to be in jail, how a smaller justice system would be better). But, ultimately, it’s often up to me to decide whether or not I will let these issues divide us or if I will seek common ground. Many of the people I disagree with politically actually want the same things I want—safety, quality of life, prospering families, and thriving communities. So, how can I take the angst that I feel when people don’t see things the way I do and channel that energy into patience and goodwill? If I probe enough, usually I discover that while we want the same things, our approach to reaching those things differs. So, rather than expending energy on how much I can’t stand that people disagree with me, I delve more deeply into what we have in common. From that common ground, more productive conversations are generated. People share more authentically. And when our guards are down, we are all more willing to hear things that otherwise we may have never noticed. I can start to plug arguments for a different perspective. Eventually, we may begin to agree more on how to reach the common ground. So, I love my friends and family dearly for the sweet and good things that we all want, and that creates in me the capacity I need to continue learning and advocating what I’ve learned even when we disagree.

Have Patience

Remember that we’re all on a learning curve: I’ve found that most people are continually growing and evolving. I know people who once voted for particular politicians or platforms now would not vote the same way. Family members who have been blind to certain social issues, such as the reality of structural racism, have begun to open their eyes and learn. My family celebrates Thanksgiving, and last year for the first time when we were standing in a circle and holding hands to give thanks, a family member asked that we take a moment to reflect on the injustices committed against Indigenous peoples. I was shocked and amazed at how far that person, and my family as a whole, has come in thinking about and advocating for other groups and cultures. Considering my journey and the patience that people around me exercised when I was clueless about race equity issues, differing religious beliefs, and more—I am the ultimate testament to the power of time and right influences to change us for good.

Know Your Boundaries

The holidays mean that we will likely spend time with people that we ordinarily would choose to avoid – perhaps that sibling who regularly consumes large quantities of alcohol and illicit substances at family gatherings, or the childhood friend who drops in uninvited every time he hears that you will be home or the aunt that doesn’t know how to stop prying into your business. I came to peace when I learned that I don’t have to maintain childhood friendships that do not align with my direction in life. I don’t have to have a close relationship with a sibling who refuses to receive or seek help. I can kindly and firmly assert my boundaries with the aunt asking too many questions. If you know that avoiding a visit with a particular person is necessary for your mental, emotional, or physical well-being, then don’t visit the person! Only you know your boundaries and can make the decisions you need to maintain optimal social wellness.

Reach Out

If you need to vent, feel free to email me or a friend that can commiserate with you! Ideally, share your frustrations with someone who can help you see the humor or, perhaps, a glimmer of hope in the situation. If you’re finding yourself running out of patience and compassion, know you’re not alone. There’s likely someone else at PRA also struggling with their family or friends this holiday season.

But, hopefully not…may this holiday season bring peace, goodwill, opened eyes, and compassionate hearts that boost your social wellness and more! And if unity is running short, I encourage you to love the common ground. Happy Fall, Y’all!