7 Stoic principles to embrace when deep down you’re dreading seeing your family during the holiday season

Let’s be honest, the holiday season isn’t always the jingle-bell-rock whirlwind of joy it’s cracked up to be.

Deep down, there’s this little knot in your stomach that forms just thinking about the upcoming family gatherings.

Now, I love my family, but that doesn’t mean I’m blind to the stress and tension that can come with the territory.

Here’s where some age-old wisdom can come in handy.

Stoicism, an ancient Greek philosophy, might just be the unexpected guest at your holiday table this year.

These principles aren’t about suppressing feelings or putting on a brave face; they’re practical tools to help navigate the choppy waters of family dynamics.

You might think, “Stoicism and holidays? Really?”

But trust me, embracing a few stoic strategies could be your ticket to a more serene season.

So, stick around as I share seven stoic principles to keep in your back pocket when you’re secretly dreading those family get-togethers.

It’s all about making space for peace amid the chaos — both inside and out.

1) Accept what you can’t change

Ever found yourself in the middle of dinner, a comment flies across the table like a rogue dinner roll, and you’re about to launch into defense mode?

Well, Stoicism steps in here with a game-changer: accepting what you can’t change.

It’s like realizing that no matter how much you want to, you can’t control the flight path of that dinner roll.

The truth is, your family will have opinions. Lots of them. And they’ll do things that are, well, quintessentially them. That’s their right, just as it’s your right to bring your own brand of holiday cheer.

Stoicism teaches us to distinguish between what’s in our power and what isn’t — and most of what others say and do? That’s firmly in the ‘not your circus, not your monkeys’ category.

So when Uncle Bob starts on one of his infamous tirades or when cousin Sally brings up that topic everyone silently agreed to avoid, take a breath. Remind yourself that you’re the master of your ship, even if you can’t control the wind.

You might not be able to change them or their views, but you can adjust your sails — your reactions and your emotions — to navigate smoothly through the family fiesta.

In a similar vein, as we embrace the idea of accepting what we can’t change, let’s now shift our focus to the next Stoic strategy…

2) Focus on the present moment

I remember one holiday season, my mind was a time-traveling machine.

I was either fretting over the awkward conversation from last year’s dinner or worrying about the impending doom of this year’s gift exchange.

It was exhausting.

But then, I stumbled upon a Stoic principle that felt like a life raft: focus on the present moment.

It sounds simple, but boy, does it take practice.

During one family gathering, I caught myself starting to spiral, anticipating the usual chaos.

So, I took a deep breath and looked around.

My niece was giggling at a silly joke, the room was warmly lit with soft holiday lights, and there was this incredible smell of cinnamon and baking in the air. In that instant, nothing else mattered.

Stoicism reminds us that the here and now is all we truly have.

The past is a memory; the future, a figment of our imagination.

By anchoring myself in the moment — feeling the texture of the tablecloth, actively listening to conversations, and savoring each bite of food — I found a sense of calm amidst my usually noisy thoughts.

And you know what?

That evening turned out to be one of the most enjoyable ones I’ve had with my family, simply because I was truly there for it.

Similarly, by learning to focus on the present moment, we uncover another Stoic principle that contributes to a more serene holiday experience…

pic2051 7 Stoic principles to embrace when deep down you're dreading seeing your family during the holiday season

3) Practice empathy

Last year, I found myself dreading the annual holiday visit to my grandparents’ place.

You see, my grandpa has this habit of interrogating everyone about their life choices — it’s like walking into a pop quiz you never studied for.

But this time, I decided to try something different: practicing empathy, a core Stoic value.

Instead of bracing for impact, I took a moment to consider things from his perspective.

Grandpa grew up in a completely different era, and his ‘interrogations’ weren’t meant to be personal attacks; they were his way of showing interest and concern.

Armed with this new understanding, I engaged with him differently.

When he asked about my job, instead of offering short, defensive answers, I shared my challenges and successes.

Something incredible happened.

The conversation shifted from an inquisition to a meaningful exchange. We both walked away feeling heard and understood.

By tapping into empathy, I not only eased my own anxiety but also strengthened our relationship.

Grandpa wasn’t the holiday villain I’d made him out to be; he was just a man from another time trying to connect in the only way he knew how.

Building upon the foundation of practicing empathy, we move forward to explore how reframing your perspective can be your secret weapon during family gatherings…

4) Reframe your perspective

I’ll admit, there was a time when the very thought of the family white elephant gift exchange filled me with dread.

Not because I’m a Grinch, but because it always seemed to end in a passive-aggressive tug-of-war.

Then, I stumbled upon another Stoic gem: reframing your perspective.

So, what did I do?

Instead of seeing the gift exchange as a battlefield, I chose to view it as a comedy show.

I’d pick out the most outrageous, laugh-inducing presents I could find.

Last year, I wrapped up a singing fish plaque — you know, the kind that belts out tunes when you walk by.

The moment that goofy fish came out of the box, something shifted. Laughter bubbled up naturally and the usual tension dissipated.

Even Aunt Marge, who could out-sneer a cat with a lemon, cracked a smile.

By reframing the event in my mind from a stressor to an opportunity for shared humor, I transformed my experience of it.

The Stoics were onto something: our power lies in our interpretation of events, not the events themselves.

The white elephant wasn’t the problem; my dread was.

And just by tweaking my outlook, the holiday hoopla became something to look forward to rather than avoid.

Continuing in this vein, let’s now investigate the power of setting personal boundaries, yet another Stoic approach to enhancing your holiday gatherings…

5) Set personal boundaries

There’s always that one family event during the holidays where everyone seems to forget the concept of personal space — both physically and metaphorically.

Last year, I decided enough was enough. It was time to exercise a Stoic principle close to my heart: setting personal boundaries.

I learned that the Stoics were big on inner fortitude, on protecting their peace of mind.

So, when my cousin decided to turn our casual catch-up into a deep dive into my love life, I gently steered the conversation elsewhere.

I shared a story about a study I’d read on penguins and their lifelong mates — quirky creatures committing for the long haul, no dating apps in sight.

Redirecting the focus not only saved me from an uncomfortable grilling but also brought a round of chuckles and an engaging chat about animal behaviors.

Setting this small, yet firm boundary kept the evening light-hearted and prevented any potential for family drama.

In mastering the art of polite deflection, I discovered a powerful way to maintain my composure and enjoy our time together.

It turns out that even something as simple as discussing penguin relationships can be a useful tactic in safeguarding one’s personal boundaries during the holiday frenzy.

In a similar vein, mastering the art of setting personal boundaries can be your key to embracing imperfection, our next Stoic principle…

pic2052 7 Stoic principles to embrace when deep down you're dreading seeing your family during the holiday season

6) Embrace imperfection

I used to be the one obsessing over every detail of our family gatherings.

The silverware had to match, the playlist had to be just right, and heaven forbid if the pie crust was anything less than perfect.

But trying to create the flawless holiday experience was like chasing a mirage.

During one particularly chaotic Thanksgiving, the turkey came out looking more like a charcoal briquette than a golden-brown centerpiece.

As I stood there, gripping the counter with a sinking feeling in my stomach, a Stoic principle whispered to me: embrace imperfection.

So I did something I never thought I would — I laughed.

And as my laughter mixed with the smoky aroma filling the kitchen, it brought a new lightness to the room.

We ended up ordering pizza and having an impromptu picnic on the living room floor.

That burnt turkey taught me that sometimes it’s the mishaps that make memories, not the meticulous planning.

Now, I approach each holiday with a little more grace for myself and for the inevitable imperfections.

It’s not about the perfect meal or decor; it’s about the imperfect, beautiful moments we share.

Moving forward, let’s explore the final Stoic principle, one that emphasizes the importance of valuing your inner serenity during family gatherings…

7) Value your inner serenity

Through all the ups and downs of family gatherings, the most important thing I’ve learned is to value my inner serenity above all else.

It’s the quiet anchor that keeps me steady in the stormiest of seas.

When discussions get heated or when the holiday chaos reaches its peak, I remind myself that my peace of mind is priceless.

Protecting this tranquility doesn’t mean I don’t care about my family or the festivities; it means I care about engaging with them in a way that doesn’t compromise my well-being.

It’s about finding that sweet spot where you can be present and participate without letting external circumstances disrupt your calm.

The Stoics were wise in their counsel to look within and nurture our inner citadel.

When we do, we’re not only better equipped to handle the challenges that come our way, but we also become a haven for others who might be struggling with their own holiday anxieties.

Remember, no matter what unfolds around you, your inner serenity is your greatest gift to yourself — and to your family.

The bottom line

As we wrap up our exploration of Stoic principles for the holiday season, it’s clear that the anticipation of family gatherings can stir a complex mix of emotions.

Yet, understanding that discomfort doesn’t have to lead to dread is a powerful realization.

Embracing these Stoic strategies offers more than just a way to survive family encounters; it provides a path to finding joy and meaning in them.

It’s about controlling what we can—our responses, our attitudes, our boundaries—and letting go of what we can’t.

Change begins with a conscious decision to approach these situations differently.

As you implement these seven principles, you may find that not only do you dread family gatherings less, but you might actually start to look forward to them.

Each small step towards embracing Stoicism is a step towards tranquility and contentment.

So, as the holidays approach, carry with you the wisdom of the Stoics.

Allow their insights to guide you through the festive labyrinth.

And remember, your inner peace is the greatest gift you can give yourself—and in turn, to your family.

Reflect on these principles, apply them gently, and watch as the holiday season transforms into an opportunity for growth and connection.

After all, isn’t that what this time of year is truly about?

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Picture of Tina Fey

Tina Fey

I've ridden the rails, gone off track and lost my train of thought. I'm writing for Ideapod to try and find it again. Hope you enjoy the journey with me.

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