I’ve always loved the Christmas season. Though I think of myself more as a Buddhist now, I grew up attending the Episcopal church, and the ritual, the carols, and the stories touch a deep place in me. I’ve performed Handel’s Messiah at least three dozen times and never got tired of it.

We had wonderful rituals at home too, including the annual decorating of dozens of ginger cookies rolled out and baked by my mother; a “lane party” where the three households on our dead-end street drank eggnog and ate homemade cookies, and our gift exchange on Christmas morning followed by the annual two-hour pilgrimage to the home of dear family friends for a late roast-beef dinner.

Young parents, young kids

My parents had all four of us (I’m the oldest) in just six years right after college, and they threw themselves in to Christmas celebrations with the energy and enthusiasm of two twenty-somethings. I’ll never forget the year they had filled the doorway into the living room with cardboard building bricks which we had to knock down to get to the tree!–complete delight and utter chaos.

Throughout all this, I walked the sensitive person’s tightrope, though I had no name for it: I adored and anticipated the cheerful tumult of the holidays but relished disappearing into the basement for long hours of reading (I see now that reading was my way of resting and restoring balance when I got overstimulated.) Now, I relish the quiet in the household my partner and I share, yet I have been surprised how keenly I miss the ease of dipping back into the more sociable family scene.

Adjusting to being a “grownup”

As an adult, I don’t feel comfortable disappearing to read The Lord of the Rings for three hours at a time, knowing all the work that goes on behind the scenes of great meals and gatherings. Not that I wasn’t helpful as a kid, but it’s different being responsible for things. As I’ve navigated this change, I’ve come to three useful realizations:

1. I accept that a family visit is not a vacation

I define a vacation as a period of time when I can focus exclusively on resting. A trip to Italy is wonderful, but because I’m “on the go” most of the time, it is not a vacation. Neither is a holiday visit.  It took me a long time to figure this out, because when you are a kid, family trips and holidays are vacations. Someone else is doing all the cooking, the planning, the social arrangements, and the transportation. You can just relax and enjoy it all.

I’d like it to be that way for my daughter and her cousins, and my elderly parents (though getting them to sit down is easier said than done!) It’s their turn for now. Their help is welcome but they don’t have to be in charge. But for my sanity, I stay clear that during family visits I willingly choose to spend the majority of my time contributing in some way or other. I also accept the occasional overstimulation that comes with that, and stick to a few things I know I really need:

2. I know what’s non-negotiable for me

My self-imposed “non-negotiables” during a family visit are eight hours in bed with my eyes shut (asleep, if I’m lucky); an hour or so of alone time early in the morning; some vigorous exercise each day; and, if I can arrange it, some soup for lunch. Yes, soup….something about it (especially chicken soup with lots of vegetables) keeps my body happy in the midst of the irresistible but overstimulating onslaught of sweets and caffeine.

But the biggest non-negotiable is planned rest time upon returning home. It took me a long time to accept this, but it has made a big difference in my well-being. I need at least a full day to re-enter after a family visit. It’s not just to do laundry and get groceries and go through the mail. It’s to rest and process all the stimulation: the company, the driving, any emotional reactions I may be having.

3. I’m proactive about creating meaning and connection

This is the most important thing for me: to sit down in advance and ask myself what my hopes and wishes are for our time together. Then I can identify what actions I need to take to help create the meaning and connection I value. I did that for our trip next week: we only have a couple days together this time, and I wanted to make sure that in that short time together, we have a chance to share what’s most meaningful for each of us.

So I emailed everyone who will be there and we made a plan to hang out on the afternoon of Christmas Eve to share what we’ve been up to: my nephew’s semester abroad in Tanzania, my daughter’s new internship, my sister’s trip to Pakistan, my partner’s work as featured in an amazing documentary about truth and reconciliation work he did in Nepal last Christmas…

And my dad’s 80th birthday. I’m very close to my parents and can’t quite imagine life without them. I wish they could to live forever, and I know they can’t. I want these lovely Christmas gatherings to go on forever, and I know they won’t.

It’s our nature as sensitive persons to process all this deeply. That’s why we need time to rest after a family visit. It’s not just to sleep, but to reflect on the meaning of it all, because family visits are meaningful in the most literal sense—full of meaning. It’s a paradox of being sensitive that to fully appreciate what it has meant to us to be with loved ones, we need time alone.

References on high sensitivity:
Aron, Elaine (2010). Psychotherapy and the Highly Sensitive Person. New York: Routledge.
Aron, Elaine (1996). The Highly Sensitive Person. New York: Broadway Books.