Welcome to our new section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus.) We welcome faculty, clinicians and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.
I have always held fast to the idea that your family is of your choosing. Yes, we have those who share the same ancestors as us and a somewhat similar genetic makeup, but I have always believed that family is constituted by those we care about and those who care about us, and we choose who out of these people we want to call our family.
For many, it is the family of our choosing that makes us feel safer than the family with whom we share our DNA, and here is something imperative for people who are not going home for the holidays to realize: If it is in your best interest to celebrate with the family you have chosen for yourself, then that is okay.
But for those who do not have such a luxury — for those who have decided to either stay on campus or spend the holiday alone: If it is in your best interest to do what it takes to not celebrate with your relatives, then that is also okay.
These reminders are essential, because in deciding not to return to relatives during the holidays, there is always some form of guilt that tends to rise into existence.
While there are a vast majority of reasons why one may not wish to return home, one of the shining reminders is that there is no such thing as you “owing” it to your family to return to them, and if you are doing what is best for your overall mental health in choosing to spend the holidays alone or with others that you care deeply about, you have little reason to feel guilty.
Families are not based on obligation; it is the enemy of truly appreciating the people that make it up. The reasoning that these are the people who raised you, and for that sole reason you must return to them, perpetuates an unhealthy cycle of returning to an environment that can be mentally and emotionally taxing.
The holidays are not meant to be demanding in such a manner. Family time should be spent appreciating one another and enjoying the company of people close to you. Forcing yourself or being forced to spend holidays with people who instigate anxiety or stress will only breed added resentment and aversion to spending any other time with them.
Sometimes, in celebrating the holidays on your own accord, you may find yourself gaining a perspective on family that you did not have before. As a college student, there will always be a certain degree of exposure to the family environment, because circumstance may not yet allow you to fully escape the family setting that could be the source of mental strain — but spending as much time away from the situation as possible can be vital to approaching an inevitable one with a fresh mindset.
This does not mean that you have to try getting along with your family. Sometimes a trying environment will be exactly that, and it is not your responsibility to rebuild it at the expense of your own mental health. However, it is your responsibility to manage the tension around yourself in order to spare your own well-being, and this could mean spending the holidays with the people you truly enjoy rather than those who may be of the opinion that you “owe” them your time.
Always remember that things do get better, and you are not forever destined to subject yourself to the stress and anxiety that you have the option to alleviate to some degree. We can take the holidays to truly appreciate the family that we have built for ourselves, rather than be forced to constantly handle the anxiety that may come with returning to a dysfunctional environment. In the same way you can choose the people you call family, you can choose who you appreciate on the holidays — even if that person is yourself.
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