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7 ways to stay true to yourself during the holidays - Neuroqueer considerations

Updated: Nov 10, 2022

If you want to skip the blog post and still learn this content, you can join my upcoming workshop series which will cover the same topics and starts Nov 16th:

Image of a succulent covered in dew drops
I love how nature can guide us in honoring our own uniqueness regardless of the situation. (Photo by me)

“The Holiday Season” can mean a lot of different things to different people depending on their background, culture, and spiritual beliefs. In many parts of the U.S. mid November - early January are filled with “holiday” activities that can impact people regardless of whether or not they celebrate holidays during that time. This guide can be adapted to different situations depending on your own personal experience/tradition.

Note: these are all suggested activities made with a general group in mind and are not tailored to your individual needs. These are not strict rules to be followed. If you feel overwhelmed or panicked while doing these activities, I suggest stepping away, doing something that feels calming, familiar, and nervous system soothing. Doing these activities with a therapist, coach, or trusted support person may also be helpful. In my upcoming workshop series Staying True To Yourself During the Holidays, we will do similar activities in a supportive group container.

7 Practices for Staying True to Yourself During the Holidays

Image of an open journal with a coffee stain on it
Photo by Markus Spiske

1. Try to plan in advance

Planning in advance can help us to show up more authentically because it gives us an opportunity to reduce unneeded stress and be more prepared for when stress does arise. This is especially helpful for Autistic and Neurodivergent people who like routines and struggle with unexpected change. If you have a partner or supportive family members this can be a great time to pull them in. Depending on your level of closeness, you can decide how much to include them in the process or if you just want to let them know the boundaries that you've decided at the end.

The shadow side of planning can be getting too caught up in making everything perfect. It can be helpful to view this as a practice of loving your future self. See if there are ways you can make it fun, like using fun colors to draw things out, talking through it in a silly voice, or acting things out very dramatically as if it is on a soap opera. Also, remember, breaks and imperfect attempts are encouraged and celebrated!

Think or write about the things to expect during the holidays. This can include changes to routine, social gatherings, traveling, being around family members, expectations, "shoulds" (see next paragraph for explanation), changes such as breakups or lost loved ones, etc. After making this list, you may want to do some activities that feel familiar and soothing, even eating a snack and drinking your favorite beverage can be supportive.

Then, when the time feels right, you might try and shift into a curious brainstorming mindset. It might help to view it from the perspective of a friend coming to you for advice or as if you were playing a video game. Are there any ways to eliminate or minimize stressors? How can you incorporate tools to soothe your nervous system during and after stressful events? How can you increase your resilience through activities that feel comforting, joyful, or pleasurable? Who can you ask for help if needed? Etc.

Some examples may include:

  • Making a packing list in advance, so you can simply check off the boxes instead of using all of that brain energy to figure things out day of (I like to do this on my phone so I don’t lose it).

  • Discussing a plan with a partner/family member about who will handle what food items so you don’t have to do all the cooking alone.

  • Talking with your therapist about how available they will be during the holidays and together creating a self care plan.

Image by Dorota Dylka

2. Become mindful of the "shoulds"

By “shoulds” I mean obligations you put on yourself, such as “I should see a certain family member” or “I should ignore my own sensory needs”, etc. Often these are stories we picked up during childhood and there is room for compassion around the parts of us who took on these beliefs. At the same time, these “shoulds” can cause us to make decisions that are no longer beneficial and add additional stress. The goal is not to forcefully release all of the “shoulds” but instead to practice noticing these stories with mindful compassion and create a space to make a new choice.

Some questions to get started might be: What are expectations you put on yourself that are no longer needed? Do you feel like you should do certain chores/activities alone, without asking for help? Do you feel like you should perform as happy the whole time when you're around family? Do you feel like you should not assert boundaries?

It can be helpful to take an honest look at your shoulds through journaling, working with a qualified coach or therapist, or in a supportive friend space. Once you identify what the shoulds are, you can start to ask yourself if these coping mechanisms or beliefs are helpful to you anymore. Do they keep you safe? Do they support your well-being? One potential way to respond to shoulds is to think or say “I am noticing a belief that I should _____”, then speak to the belief “thank you for trying to keep me safe”. There are many variations to this practice but the essential purpose is to disidentify from the belief and create a space for you to step into your power.

Image of two tea cups, a kettle, and some herbs in a wooden bowl.
Soothing plants and teas can be a supportive. Image from Wix Media

3. Remember your wellness practices

Sometimes in the rush of the holiday season we lose track of some of our wellness practices. There's nothing wrong with that, but it can be helpful to remember that we still have these tools that we practice throughout the rest of the year. For example, if you like to do a walking meditation everyday, consider if it would be helpful to continue doing so during this time. What would need to happen for you to be able to maintain that practice? Could it help to shorten the practice or do it during another activity such as walking to the car? Would you have to ask for more alone time in the morning?

Image from Wix Media

4. Also remember your sensory needs

I know many Neurodivergent folks who are learning more about their sensory needs as adults. We learn what smells, lighting, sounds, textures are overwhelming and which ones are soothing. Other factors can impact the intensity of our sensory experience, such as familiarity/newness of situations, stress/comfort, etc. Take note of the sensory things you might have more control over, like wearing comfortable clothing, bringing earbuds or noise canceling headphones for the plane, communicating your safe food options or bringing your own, etc. Having things that feel comfortable and soothing can go a long way, especially when there may be other sensory experiences that are out of your control.

If you are spending time with people that are supportive of your sensory needs, awesome! You can talk through this with them in advance, planning things like sensory breaks away from crowds/noise/smells. It can feel more challenging if you are going to be with family or friends who do not understand your sensory needs or may even pressure you to ignore those needs. Cultural factors can impact how you communicate your needs. Consider if it would be helpful to explain your sensory needs to family or if it is better to find alternative clear boundaries to set. Maybe the best next step is avoiding the conversation altogether and coming up with excuses that fit into meeting your needs (see below).

Some ways to practice this are:

  • Finding excuses or ways to meet your needs, such as doing dishes or running an errand to find some time away, needing to go home to let the dogs out. Eating in advance. Being the DJ.

  • Saying something simple like “I don’t eat that type of food, but I brought my own”, if they push back, not feeling the need to go into a long explanation but simply restating your boundary or addressing their comments “you are pressuring me to eat your food and I do not want to”. Practicing statements like this in advance can be very helpful.

Abstract visual art with lots of small misshapen small bubbles outlined by red and yellow
I view boundaries like cell walls, allowing in what we need and keeping out what we don't. Image of art by Adrien Converse from Upsplash.

5. Boundaries

“Boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously.” - Prentis Hemphill

I view learning how to maintain healthy boundaries as an ongoing practice that often can be leveled up, tweaked, or adjusted depending on the situation. Really, this whole post is about boundaries, but there is also a lot more to boundaries than can be covered in one article. It’s important to remember that boundaries are not just a big conversation where you lay out your needs, though that can be part of the process of establishing a new boundary. Effective boundaries are maintained through our actions over time. An example of this is when someone misgenders you or a loved one, consistently interrupting with the correct pronoun (this is even more effective if multiple people do the same thing consistently).

It’s also helpful to remember that boundaries are not about changing someone else. It can be really frustrating when dealing with a family member who says offensive things. To have a goal of changing their mind can feel overwhelming and fruitless. Instead you may try shifting inwards and asking yourself how you can respond in alignment with your integrity. Maybe it feels right to speak your disagreement clearly and concisely, and then remove yourself from a long back and forth debate. I’ve found that having simple but clear responses ready in advance can be very helpful. If there is someone who constantly says or does things you find hurtful, you may say something to them in advance, such as “if you make negative comments about my body, I tell you to stop and leave the conversation.”

During the workshop series, we will dive deeper into individual boundaries and practice with each other. The book Set Boundaries Find Peace by Nedra Glover Tawwab also has a lot of great resources on maintaining boundaries.

Image of a spiderweb
For me, spiderwebs symbolize my connection with other humans and the rest of the natural world. Image by Shubham Sharma

6. Identify your support system

Whether or not you celebrate the same holidays as everyone else. It can be challenging when your normal support spaces are not available in the same way they usually are. Maybe friends are with family or more busy than usual.

Consider what your support system tends to look like during this time. You can reach out to others in advance and ask them what they think their availability will be, while understanding that it might change. Perhaps there is a local queer event during this time that can help you remember you are not alone, maybe there is a group chat or online group that you can reach out to. Not everyone has to be a confidant to your deepest feelings, different relationships can meet different needs. If people are busy, sending messages that can be responded to later might be a good solution, or writing in your journal to talk things through with your therapist.

Also, your support system does not need to be human. Often during big gatherings when I feel overstimulated or stressed, it can be helpful for me to take a sensory break by going outside and taking deep breaths with a friendly tree. Going for a walk with the dog also can relieve stress and help you feel connected to another being. For those of us who are spiritual or witchy, we can go to our supportive spirits and express our feelings, frustrations, joys, etc. An altar practice can be one way to feel connected to helping spirits.

Chalk on pavement reading "you got this"
Image by Sydney Rae

7. Practice compassion

I just want to take a moment to celebrate you for clicking on this article and reading as much as you have! Sometimes when I read articles like this, I put pressure on myself to make sudden huge shifts in my life and implement everything perfectly. Life has taught me that change often seeps in through non-linear spiral patterns. Some days a thing I read years ago will finally “click into place”, making sense when I didn’t understand the meaning before. Other times just reading information allows it to root into my life and I naturally find myself making subtle changes that evolve over time. Celebrating each individual “baby step” (small change), can help to build up confidence and my willingness to continue the work. I encourage you to take what works and leave the rest.

This article is informed by, but not specific to: my life experience as a trans, nonbinary AuDHD person, disability justice, queer theory, mindfulness, inner family systems, energy body clearing, and the work of Nedra Glover Tawwab and Devon Price.

If you find this article helpful, you might enjoy joining my upcoming workshop series Staying True to Yourself During the Holidays which starts Nov 16th.

Click image to learn more and register!

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