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A College Student’s Guide to Surviving Winter Break

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December 4, 2014

For us college students, this time of year is dominated by stress of finals, projects, and papers. But when all of that is over for the semester, that stress doesn’t necessarily go away. Thanksgiving break is over, and for some of us that was a short glimpse into what the several weeks of winter break will offer us.

I grew up in a small town, with a very conservative group of family, friends, and neighbors. Growing up, I had little exposure to the issues and ideas that I am passionate about at this point in my life. In a lot of ways, leaving the nest to go to college was a liberating experience for me, although my university is about as midwestern as any. I’ve had the incredible opportunity to take classes and be a part of groups that have expanded my world view and associated with amazing people that have helped to educate me on things I had never thought about previously.

However, with so much having changed about myself and my ideas after I left, it can sometimes be a difficult experience spending much time back in my hometown. Although this year I won’t be spending much time there, other years I have spent several weeks staying with family and reconnecting with old ties. And that can be a very challenging and exhausting task.

The people I grew up around are mostly nice and well-meaning, but seeing the cultural attitudes I’ve spent the past few years trying to eliminate from myself rear their ugly head in the people I love and respect can be hard to deal with. Whether it’s the obvious perpetuation of gender roles in relationships, or socialization of the children in the family, or just an offhanded comment by someone about politics, it’s easy to become hyper-aware of all of the problematic things that happen.

To be clear, I realize there are some people that have much more difficult situations than I do. The holidays can be an incredibly stressful time for people that don’t have a stable family situation, or have families/friends that don’t approve of their relationships, gender identity, or sexual orientation, or maybe are struggling with or recovering from an eating disorder, among many other situations. There are a ton of resources available for any of these scenarios as well as others not mentioned. Here is an excellent article that offers some of that, as my simple blog post may not be best suited for your needs.

In an effort to try to help my fellow social-justice minded friends through the experience of the holiday season, I’ve assembled a non-comprehensive list of 6 helpful steps to keep it all as positive as possible. Keep in mind that I come from a perspective of a white, heterosexual, cisgender man. Those privileges, among the many others I possess, clearly shape my experiences, strategies, and advice. I can’t get away from that reality, but I will continue to try to make this applicable to any person facing holiday social-justice related stress. `

#1- Practice Self Care

I put this first because it is the most important. When things get uncomfortable, difficult, or frustrating, take a step back from the situation. Pursue an activity that helps you unwind, get on social media to vent, or talk to that one family member that seems to understand your pain. You have no responsibility to hold yourself in uncomfortable situations for the benefit of others. Remember, this is a survival guide, not a “Let’s change the entire world in one day!” guide.

#2- Engage if you Dare

There is absolutely nothing wrong with joining in on the discussions that are certain to be going on about any number of topics. If that’s what you want to do, go for it. That has the potential to give others a perspective on an issue they haven’t heard yet, and have it explained to them in clear, sensible terms. It also has the potential to be a hot mess of anger and bitterness. Keep in mind who you are talking to, whether they might be receptive or hostile to your ideas, and always acknowledge the risk to your personal happiness you take when engaging.

#3- Don’t be Afraid to Shake Things up

Take the time to ask your father/brother/cousin/uncle to help out with the cooking or housework to see their reaction. Encourage your younger siblings or nieces and nephews to play with the “wrong” toys if they want to. Call someone out for making a racist or sexist comment. Don’t let your mom do all of your laundry for you. Talk about the latest political campaign or social-justice event you participated in. Bring awareness to this stuff by just talking about it.

#4- Be Honest

Be as honest as you feel comfortable with anyone who asks questions about you, your life, or your views. It may not be the most fun, but it puts everything on the table for those who want to know. If someone asks me about my school experience, writing for URGE is likely to come up, and then we get to have a nice little discussion about reproductive justice (including abortion- gasp!)

When you talk about a subject like that, one of a few options happens. Either this person will be interested and ask more questions, or they will be disapproving and change the subject. It isn’t a common experience for people to become argumentative when faced with that situation, but it can happen in some cases. At that point, you may want to dissipate the problem by changing the subject yourself.

#5- Meet People Where They Are

Realize that language is important, and not everyone is familiar with the same words. Engaging someone on an issue can be counterproductive if you’re only arguing about semantics. If you try to explain something to someone, avoid vocabulary words and feminist jargon you learned in your classes. You’re not trying to impress them with smarts, you’re trying to explain concepts, and that can only happen if you can understand each other.

#6- When all Else Fails, Remember What’s Important to You

Sometimes, being right or changing someone’s mind is worth less to you than either your relationship with that person or your own personal mental health. And that’s ok. It isn’t your responsibility to sacrifice yourself for the greater good each time you come across someone that is wrong. You are welcome to pursue that strategy, but there is no shame in going for a more non-confrontational, incremental approach to dismantling the patriarchy. You should never feel compelled to go further than you are comfortable with. No one can understand your situation but you.

Regardless of what happens,

Keep in mind that your feelings and experiences are valid. It’s ok to be angry. It’s ok if you feel hurt, shamed, or attacked for who you are or what you believe. We know, or should know, that intentions don’t matter, results do. So if someone hurts or offends you, even with good intentions, being angry is justified.

It may or may not help to remember where you came from and try to understand where they are coming from. It may or may not help to be forgiving and patient with those that hurt you, because knowledge and exposure to issues are privileges that not everyone has access to.

But the most important thing is that whatever coping strategy you use, that you take care of yourself and your happiness. Maybe you can leave something positive behind, but that’s what you take with you when you leave.

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