Managing our "holiday season" anxiety.


My blog is about anxiety that we can experience as gay and bi men over the holidays.  For those of us who will see our families over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays (whether or not we observe Christmas or New Year’s), the “holiday season” can raise a lot of anxiety!   Anxiety could be about seeing family members who are obnoxious or difficult regardless of if you are gay or not.  Anxiety could also be about how much we do or don’t have the same beliefs as our family members.  However, for gay and bi men, a lot of us also are specifically concerned about anti-gay statements and judgements from our family members from our families or communities of origin.  As a psychologist, here are some problems I often hear about from many of my gay and bi clients:

- “No one wants to talk about my personal life because they don’t want to hear about my sexuality or relationships.”

- “I don’t really want to represent or defend other gay/bi men to my family members.  I am my own person”

- “I can’t stand being the only gay/bi guy in my family and have to drink heavily to tolerate my family.”

I am sure many of the readers have heard some other comments too, some of which are even worse than the ones above!  On the other hand, I know there are also some people who have really supportive families who are knowledgeable about gay and bi men’s lives. 

I have 2 main points to make about dealing with families over the holidays:

Point #1: Watch out for internalizing anti-gay messages.  Homophobia is the problem – not being gay or bi.

For some of us, no matter how cool we are with being gay or bi when were are living in or visiting gay-friendly neighbourhoods, towns, and cities, when we come home, a part of us feels like we are being judged by others for being gay or bi.  When we are feeling uncomfortable, we might feel anxious, sad, depressed, or lonely.  Sometimes we are feeling uncomfortable because of things that are objectively happening, such as people avoiding us or avoiding talking about our personal lives.  Sometimes we are just feeling uncomfortable even though nothing objectively bad is happening to us today.  However, it is important for us to be aware of our thoughts and feelings. 

If you are starting to feel uncomfortable, it can activate other negative thoughts, including some of the anti-gay thoughts that many of us used to believe before we learned it was okay to be gay or bi.  A lot of gay and bi men used to believe we really were worse than other people for being gay, just because we heard really negative messages at school, on the playground, at social events, at houses of worship, and at home.   

Think of it – if you ever had these thoughts, it could have been when you were living with your family.   If you are at your home where you used to live as a kid, you might be again surrounded by the same people.  Some of these people may not have done a 100% turnaround to become pride flag carrying, gay-friendly people.  It is therefore totally understandable that you might have in your head some anti-gay thoughts, because you are with the same people that remind you of how you used to be before your came out.  Alternatively, a lot of gay and bi men did grow up with Christmas, but we don’t spend time with our families of origin because of the ways we were treated by our families, including because of homophobia.  This can make the holiday season very lonely.   The holiday season can also feel very lonely if we didn’t grow up with Christmas because we our families were not from a Christian background, or because we no longer celebrate Christmas, and everyone seems to be assuming that we should be celebrating Christmas.  This can make the “holiday season” feel very isolating and make us feel uncomfortable too.  However, there are things we can do to cope with this time of year.  

Point #2: Watch your own actions – if the way you are coping doesn’t work for you, remind yourself about ways of coping that work better for you over the holidays. 

If you find yourself being aware that you yourself are having anti-gay thoughts, also notice your behaviour:

  1. Are you feeling so sad or anxious that you notice you are avoiding enjoying things you usually enjoy (e.g., Christmas traditions you like, spending time with certain family members, spending time with your family-of-choice or friends)?
  2. Are you isolating yourself too much in order to avoid certain people?
  3. Are you arguing with people even when you don’t think it is necessary?
  4. Are you not standing up for yourself when you hear a homophobic remark?
  5. Are you drinking more than you want to drink, or more than you think is healthy? 
  6. Are you so high or stoned that you feel spaced out and not able to enjoy things you’d like to enjoy?  

 

If you answer yes to any of these questions, remind yourself what you usually do when you are at your adult home, not under your parent’s/parents’/caregiver’s roof.   As gay and bi men, we have had to develop extra strategies to cope with the stress of homophobia in order for us to survive in homophobic and other difficult environments.  I can’t say what you personally do when you want to cope with the stress of homophobia, but here are some ideas for coping.  These ideas are rooted in good psychological research:

1.    Even when you are at your family’s home (if you don’t usually live there now), you are still just as good of a person as you always were.  It is also still NOT acceptable for people to be homophobic.  Remind yourself of your own values – values that do not include homophobia. Open and accepting attitudes now are shared by lots of Canadians. 
2.    Don’t isolate yourself – when possible, seek out people who make you feel good.  This might be a friendly family member, or maybe a friend who lives nearby.  This might also be your phone for calling or texting your friend who doesn’t live nearby!
3.    Do things that make you feel good and that don’t have bad consequences for you emotionally.  Perhaps there is a park you like to walk around in.  Maybe there is some amazing old music that you used to love, and that is still at your parent’s home. 
4.     There is a middle ground between being overly argumentative so that you are feeling pissed off all the time and failing to stand up for yourself.  It is called assertiveness.  If someone is saying something homophobic, you can calmly but firmly note to that person that homophobia is not acceptable, and that you won’t tolerate it.  If you don’t feel able to do that, you can leave the room (see point #1 though). 
5.     If you are drinking or using drugs more than you want to, remind yourself of what you usually do when you are feeling stressed out.  It might be that the drinking or drugs are being used to cover up the pain of homophobia or other bad childhood events.  Maybe ideas #1, #2, or #3 above are better answers for you to cope with the stress of the holidays. 

Maybe you have even better ideas that work better for you!

In summary, the holidays can be stressful for a lot of us as gay and bi men.  However, as gay and bi men, we have developed ways of coping with stress.  If you find yourself stressed out, remind yourself of how you’d like to cope with stress. 

Regardless of which holidays you usually celebrate, I hope everyone has a good Christmas/holiday season!

Trevor

Dr. Trevor A. Hart is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at Ryerson University. Dr. Hart’s research in  HIV Prevention and Care spans a wide variety of fields, including psychology, community based research, and public health. Dr. Hart's research is conducted at the HIV Prevention Lab and collaborating labs, HIV clinics, and AIDS service organizations. Most of Dr. Hart’s research efforts are devoted toward promoting positive sexual and mental health of gay and bisexual men.

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