By Dagmar Spremberg

The holiday season is my favorite time of year. I love to get caught up in the music, the cheesy movies, the infectious spirit of giving and gratitude.

But it’s also the most stressful time of year for me, and many others.

There’s a tendency to romanticize the holidays, to pick and choose the happy, cozy memories of holiday parties past, instead of remembering the often hectic, almost always overwhelming ones. I like to remember big family Christmases, full of games with my cousins and delicious food and catching up with family I hadn’t seen since last Christmas. That did happen. But our family dynamics were messy. It wasn’t unusual to leave a holiday party in tears, or for snide criticisms (usually surrounding someone’s politics) to leave lasting marks. That also happened.

Now that I have my own family and live far away from all of my relatives, holidays look a lot different. The first Christmas I was married, my husband and I traveled to my hometown. My parents had divorced and both found new partners, and my cousins were all growing up and making families of their own. We ended up going to several different Christmases, never settling in long enough at any to feel like we were really there. We also never felt like anyone’s priority, since now that we were grownups there was so. much. to. do. So many people to see, families to please, gifts to be delivered and received.

We decided we weren’t traveling home anymore for the holidays. The expense and stress weren’t worth it. We told our families that we would miss them, of course, and they are always welcome to travel to us. Now, we either spend a Friendsgiving or Friendsmas together with our friends and chosen family, go out to dinner, or travel somewhere. One Thanksgiving we spent in Italy. This Christmas we will be in Germany (both, incidentally, cheaper than flying to New Jersey during holiday weeks).

This isn’t the right solution for everyone, of course. So, how can you take care of yourself during the holidays? Here are some tips:

1). You do you, boo.

And, no, that isn’t selfish to say. If the holidays mean taking tons of money and time to travel, spending time with people who make you feel belittled or uncomfortable, or just generally stress you out, guess what? You don’t need to do it. Or, you can put limitations around it. Yes, your family may be sad (or really mad), and you may be sad, too, but you get to decide what’s best for you. This is your holiday, too, and it’s your life. You get to call the shots.

2). Be present, and don’t worry so much about presents.

I used to go to Papyrus to buy the most beautiful wrapping paper and bows for holidays. Each gift was wrapped perfectly, each year had a theme, and damn, was it an expensive waste of paper. But I wanted my little pile of gifts to look perfect. Style blogs, Pinterest, and social media all contribute to this idea that our holidays should look perfect, while also being warm and inviting. Sounds like a lot of pressure to me (and also, something straight men probably aren’t worrying about, so why is it my, or your, job?). Focus on the intentions behind gifts, not the wrapping. The feeling of the gathering, not whether everyone’s plates match. No one is going to remember how you wrapped something or if ate off paper – they’re going to remember how you made them feel.

3). Not that you’d forget, but remember to breathe.

If a situation arises that is uncomfortable or overwhelming, take a time-out. Lock yourself in the bathroom or find another quiet space and take some deep breaths – maybe practice some soothing Uujayi breathing. Let yourself calm down physically and mentally before re-entering the scene. No time to duck out? Take a few deep breaths right where you are, before you react to whatever happened. You won’t just save yourself from getting upset, you may prevent a scene by being an example of calm.

4). Go screen free.

Ask everyone to go screen free. This is easier if you’re hosting, but you can always ask the host nicely. Take time to be present with your people, instead of the people inside your phone. You can always go on the internet, but you don’t always get time with your friends and family. At least for dinner, put the phones away.

5). Set boundaries. A lot of boundaries.

Again, this isn’t selfish. It’s taking care of yourself and the people around you. How is anyone going to know they’ve violated a boundary if they’re not clear on where they exist? You get to tell people you can’t exchange presents this year, or set a purchase limit. You can tell family and friends that you’ll be going elsewhere, or can only stay at their place for a certain amount of time. If someone is rude to you or makes you feel uncomfortable, you can call them out – or leave.

The only person forcing you into enduring a stressful holiday is you. The pressure from your family and friends, the idea of a perfect holiday, or whatever “rules” you or your loved ones have created around the holidays aren’t what the season is about. We all want each other to be happy and feel loved. However you and your loved ones achieve that is up to you.

Guest blog post written by Kristin Diversi.