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You don’t have to keep on playing the same role in your family drama

Instead of getting stressed by the same things every Christmas, Viv Groskop advises treating the festive season like a social experiment

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By Viv Groskop on

If there is one gift you can give to yourself (or to others, if you can get them to take it), it’s this: the gift of experimentation. This is an idea I’ve become obsessed with lately: treat yourself as a human guinea pig. It’s a plea from the heart from someone who has had 45 Jesus birthdays and got stressed at too many of them to count. Life is too short to get caught up in the folly of this moment. Instead, take a moment to think about your mindset. And try reframing the things that ensnare us all at Christmas.

You don’t have to keep on playing the same role in your family drama. You don’t have to get annoyed because your cousin regifted what you gave her last year.  (Who doesn’t want a Lush Bath Bomb? What is wrong with her?) You don’t have to make a 200-mile round trip to see people you don’t actually like. (You can be ill or be “called into work at the last minute”.) You can see everything in a different light if you just take the time to be open to it. Where did I learn all this? From psychotherapist Oliver James, whose book, They F*** You Up, helped me realise that most of the things that bothered me about life were not personal to me, they were just part of family life and human existence and needed to be accepted, not constantly challenged.

Treating yourself more like a human guinea pig simply means that you think of yourself less as you – with all your individual insecurities, foibles, bugbears and stresses – and more as just another human being who responds to things as most humans respond to things. It is particularly useful during the festive season. Don’t be you. Just be a human. Of course you’re stressed, it’s Christmas! Of course your relatives are annoying, they’re your relatives! Of course you have eaten too much, everyone does! It is relaxing already, yes?

You don’t have to drown yourself in a vat of Baileys to get through your mother’s interrogation 

Imagine that you are a one-person scientific experiment (or anthropological case study, if you prefer). It’s a wonderful way to cope with all the psychodrama that gets thrown at us at this time of year. We all get triggered during the jolly season, because of the pressure to “have an amazing time”, fritter away too much money (including money that you don’t even have yet and may never have) and spend time with people you don’t necessarily choose to spend time with.

Factor in the burden of the end of a year and everything that brings with it, psychologically, and most of us find ourselves in the land of extreme introspection and self-obsession, where having to deal with an aunt who wrinkles her nose at the state of our skirting boards can feel like having to fend off an axe murderer. We become disproportionately stressed by things that ultimately don’t really matter. Let her disapprove. Let the two of you be at odds. Let yourself have a life.

It’s so easy, though, to find questions – to ask yourself inwardly – that will break up these frustrations. How can I experiment in this situation? What if I don’t say anything? What if I turn around and walk into another room? What if I say I’m not feeling well and need to stay in bed today? What if I write “I have lost my voice” on a Post-it note and wear it on Christmas Day and say nothing all day? In the spirit of experimentation, all these things are open to you. You can choose them.

Of course, choosing to think differently and behave differently involves giving something up: the delicious feelings of injury, martyrdom and passive aggression that can feel incredibly comforting and are inextricably bound up with Christmas for some people. We’re all drawn to this, sad though it is. There’s something quite grimly British about it. Just look at the wonderful celebration of inertia and resentment that is TV’s The Royle Family.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. You don’t have to stir the gravy with a rictus grin as you imagine sticking pins into an effigy of your racist cousin. You don’t have to drown yourself in a vat of Baileys to get through your mother’s interrogation of your career, relationship status or parenting habits. You can choose to be a new kind of guinea pig; one who does things differently and unexpectedly, just for the hell of it. I will leave some Post-it notes in your stocking.


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