Updated: Aug 15
***Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and does not provide medical, legal, or health advice and is not a substitute for mental health services
The holiday season can be a joyous time, but it can also bring along with it symptoms connected with anxiety, stress, depression, as well as unrealistic expectations, feelings of guilt, and more.
If you are a South Asian adult who recently moved out of your family home, then you may be feeling a multitude of emotions as you visit your family over the holidays. You might just be starting to learn to assert your independence or share your personal beliefs, values, and choices that could differ significantly from your family, and this may lead to some tension in the household as you try to settle yourself in for the festivities that are ahead of you.
Alternatively, if you have been living outside of the family home for some time now, you may still
find that you have mixed feelings in terms of looking forward to seeing loved ones while also feeling uneasy and worried about what you may encounter based on your past family visits.
Some of the common experiences of South Asians during the holidays that are listed below may not apply to everyone but are intended as a general and broad overview. The goal of this post is to help those South Asians out there who are struggling with complex family situations to feel seen, heard, and valued. You’re not alone.
Read on to learn more about holiday stressors that often occur in South Asian culture and strategies for how to deal with them.
1. Being encouraged to eat more than you’re comfortable with
Holidays in South Asian households may involve the feast being the central focus - and you might be encouraged by your family to have more than you are comfortable with. This kind of pressure could be something you’ve dealt with before during family dinners but it may feel magnified with the holiday season, especially when there are so many comfort foods and desserts around you.
Even if this pressure gets to the point that someone puts more food onto your plate, remember that you don’t have to have to eat it all. Stop when you are comfortably full. You know your body best and are entitled to do what suits you without having to explain yourself or apologize.
2. Facing judgment for having a drink (or feeling peer pressure
to consume more alcohol)
In some South Asian households, there is a no--alcohol policy and, for others, alcohol may flow more freely. You may either choose not to have a drink at all with your family (even though you may be a social drinker when you’re with your friends) or perhaps you may be dealing with peer pressure from loved ones to have more alcohol than you typically consume.
If you choose to drink alcohol, try to limit your consumption. If you have concerns about being addicted to alcohol, then the holidays may be a particularly challenging time of year when alcohol seems to be everywhere around you and the temptation to drink can be overwhelming. If you're comfortable, let your loved ones know that you are limiting your alcohol use so that they can hopefully support you in your goals. And reach out to a mental health professional to get some help regarding identifying your addiction triggers and making a plan for how to deal with them.
3. Getting questioned about your relationship status
South Asian culture tends to involve a large focus on marriage and family life, which can lead young South Asian adults to experience a lot of pressure from their families after they finish their university or college education or once they reach a certain age.
While visiting with your family over the holidays, you may encounter a lot of questions about your personal life, such as:
Are you seeing anyone?
(If yes), how long have you been together? When do you plan on getting married?
What is the person studying in school/what do they do for work?
What is their family like?
When can I/we meet this person?
Fielding all of these questions might make you feel like you are being interrogated and this can understandably be overwhelming. If you are in a relationship, thinking ahead of time about what details you want to share with your family and how you want to communicate this information may be helpful.
If you keep receiving endless questions beyond your comfort level, you can tell your loved one that you appreciate their interest but this is all you can share at this time, and then change topics to something more neutral. In extreme situations, you might need to say you are not continuing the conversation. This may be perceived as rude or disrespectful, but it is always your right to choose what information you disclose.
4. Having to dress a certain way that is accepted by your family
In your day-to-day life, you might have a personal style that you enjoy and wear regularly. However, when you go to your family home, you may feel as though you need to dress more traditionally or conservatively as your usual attire might not be accepted by your South Asian family.
If you choose to wear different clothes when you visit your family, then perhaps you can still use accessories that help you feel like you; a pair of earrings, a necklace, your watch, or maybe an interesting pair of socks. Add in small touches that show off your personality and unique sense of style.
And, if you do choose to wear what makes you the most comfortable – even if this isn’t as accepted by your family – that’s also ok. It’s important that you feel like yourself and are true to the person you are now, no matter what environment you are in.
5. Reverting to old family dynamics
When you step into your parents’ house, you may feel like you’re being immediately transported to the past (especially if you’re staying in your childhood room!).
You may notice that previous relational patterns between you and your parents or you and your siblings arise where you might be teased, not taken as seriously, or struggle to make your voice heard.
Depending on how long you are staying with your South Asian family, you may also have a hard time maintaining your independence in terms of preparing your meals, doing your laundry, cleaning, etc. as your family might try to do these things for you as this may be how they show you they care.
Whatever your family dynamic looks like, do your best to assert yourself, take breaks when needed, and let others know that you are not ok with how they are speaking to you if you feel dismissed, hurt, or criticized. Your feelings matter, too. If things don’t change, you may need to decide how much time you spend with your family for future holiday seasons since your mental health comes first.
6. Being compared to siblings, cousins, family friends, or others
In some cases, seeing your South Asian family during the holidays may involve receiving updates about how your siblings, cousins, family friends, or other people in your community who are similar in age to you are doing in their schooling, career, and personal life. This may be followed by comparisons between you and them that either result in you being put on a pedestal (and others being shamed) or others being praised (and you feeling as though you don’t measure up).
It can be hard to come away from family gatherings with your self-esteem intact. Please remember that you are worthy just as you are and that other people’s opinions don’t define you. Your value is not determined by your accomplishments and, just because someone else may have achieved something you haven’t, it doesn’t mean they are better than you. Remind yourself of your positive qualities and attributes and show yourself some kindness and self-compassion.
7. Feeling guilty for saying “no”, advocating for yourself, and
For many South Asians, feeling guilty is often connected with saying “no”, advocating for yourself, and setting boundaries in terms of your time, conversation topics, personal space, privacy, etc. This guilt tends can be linked with people-pleasing, which is very common in South Asian culture, as others’ needs are often put before your own.
One way of breaking this cycle is by telling yourself that your needs are just as important as anyone else’s and that you deserve to do what is best for your own health and mental health, even if others don’t understand or accept it.
Tell yourself that there is nothing wrong with putting yourself first and recognize that it takes time to develop this new way of thinking (and to unlearn negative thought patterns that no longer serve you). Keep practicing these new behaviours until they start to feel more natural to you.
8. Being pressured to spend more time with family (even though
you may want to spend part of your holidays with your friends or partner – or on your own)
In some South Asian families, there is a high level of emotional closeness and connection to the extent that you may be under pressure over the holidays to spend even more time with your loved ones than you originally intended to. It can be hard to find a balance, but perhaps it makes sense to say up front to your family how much time you will be able to spend with them so that they are
aware in advance.
Setting clear limits will help ensure there is still time left over for you to connect with your friends, your partner (if you are in a relationship) and, of course, let’s not forget that you need some alone time as well to refuel and recharge for the year ahead.
9. Feeling frustrated that new holiday traditions may not be
welcomed or accepted by your family
As an adult, you may want to incorporate new traditions over the holidays. Your efforts to raise these ideas may, unfortunately, not be completely accepted by your South Asian family. As a result, you may find that celebrations look the same year after year with limited or no change.
It's hard to get buy-in from others and it may prove too challenging to get everyone on the same page with new traditions. If that’s the case, maybe you can find ways to celebrate new traditions in your own home or with friends who have the same vision as you. Keep exploring new opportunities to enjoy the holidays in a way that is meaningful to you.
10. Having mixed feelings when you go back to your own home
After all of the hustle and bustle of visiting your family, you may notice a wide range of emotions when you go back to your own home.
Perhaps the peace and quiet make you feel a little homesick after spending so much time with your family. Or, you may feel relieved to finally have some time for yourself and are starting to feel more relaxed as you settle back into your own space. This may be followed by some feelings of guilt about enjoying being on your own, which is often a challenge for South Asian adults.
Regardless of which feelings arise for you, take some time to think about what went well for the holiday season, what you would like to continue, and what you think needs to change. Make a goal to reflect on how you would like to spend your holidays next year in terms of how you will divide up your time among the many people in your life - and how you will also prioritize yourself.
Whatever comes up for you before, during, and after the holidays, recognize your feelings as valid and accept them as they are. Honour your feelings and know that you’re doing the best you can to navigate what can sometimes feel like challenging relationships, conversations, and expectations during a very busy season.
And, perhaps most importantly, learn what lights you up and focus on that during the holidays - and beyond.
Wishing you well on your mental health journey.
Davina Tiwari MSW, RSW, CSFT
Registered Social Worker and Certified Solution Focused Therapist
Read more blog posts about South Asian Mental Health.
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