When our birth families don’t accept us for different reasons, our chosen family are the people who step into their place: the friends and mentors who make us feel at home. The term comes from queer communities who’ve been cast out for their identities but has become more common among other groups of people who have complicated or distant relationships with the family who raised them.
With chosen family and friends, we have to build traditions intentionally. They aren’t handed down to us as we grow up and can feel artificial at first. Even so, taking the time to create intentional traditions with your chosen family can enrich and deepen your connection. They can also help you celebrate the unique milestones important in your relationship.
What are rituals?
Rituals are usually something we perform regularly that connect body and spirit. It’s sealing some knowledge or connection with a bodily experience, like being submerged into water during baptism or having cake on your birthday. Many of us know that understanding something intellectually isn’t the same as knowing it in your body or feeling it with your whole self. This is where rituals are useful, they help your body incorporate ideas, information or insights about yourself. Sometimes we need to intentionally build them while other times, they create themselves by virtue of habit.
Read and watch things together
While I was at university, me and my best mate were having a hard time adjusting to the upper-class atmosphere, being two of the few people of colour on our courses and figuring out our identities as we went along. I remember coming home from a particularly gruelling day of lectures and texting my friend to ask if I can come over for dinner. We cooked and watched David Attenborough narrate the complex lives of gorillas and the ritual stuck. Several times a week, I would come over to her house or she would come to mine, we would make food and watch nature programmes.
There was something soothing about seeing our lives mirrored back to us in the behaviour of baboons and together, we got through some of the hardest times of our lives. We cemented the idea that we are not alone by eating and enjoying each other's company.
Now, you don’t have to build rituals that merely help you survive. Ritualising your joy, and quality time together with friends is equally, if not more, important. Start by examining what those activities are and have a conversation with your people about doing them regularly together.
Create alternative holiday traditions
I find that the best rituals are specific to our own relationships. What do you and your people like to do? Are you in the same place or does the ritual need to be virtual? Make sure you include your besties in this process. The ritual has to make sense and spark joy in both of you for it to be sustainable. As such, start in a place that feels familiar. What holidays did you celebrate as a kid? What foods did you eat? Invite your people to join in those things.
For me, Christmas is always tinged with low-level anxiety. The pressure of having a nice time, the financial stress of having to buy presents and spend time with fraught family members used to combine into a general dislike of December. Then, I was once invited to a queer Christmas dinner where the only expectation was to bring myself and a willingness to peel a mountain of Brussel sprouts. The tradition stuck and now, I go to a similar event every year — sometimes attending and sometimes hosting. It helps me remember, again through food or a holiday hike, that I am okay as I am and worthy of love and connection.
Finding these gatherings can be tricky, but if you don’t have a place to go, invite people in. Where there isn’t a context for your desires, make one. Rituals require that we get in touch with and be specific about what we really want. What foods do you like to eat? What aromas would you like to smell? All of this can form the mental mood board for your ritual. If you want others to participate, all you need is to let them into it.
Shake it off when things get rough
Greys Anatomy’s Christina and Meredith aside, having regular dance parties with your friends is healthy and healing. Your brain releases endorphins when listening to good music and moving your body. After debriefing with my closest friends, I like to put on my obnoxious pop song and move my body to it, just to get the stagnant or sad energy out of my system.
Once, my mother and I had a hard conversation that left me feeling heavy and sad. I told my friend about it in my living room and afterwards and felt the strong urge to put on Shake It Off by Taylor Swift and jump around the living room for a bit. My friend, being the excellent sport that she is, joined me and together we truly were humans in the wild. Sweaty and out of breath, we lay on the floor for a while and the world felt a little bit more manageable. I reminded my body, which previously felt tight with anxiety and depression, that at this moment I was held and supported.
Rituals can be any activity that you perform regularly and you get to decide exactly what they are. They are meant to signify a new beginning or give reassurance in some way, whether they be impromptu dance parties, celebrations with your own twist or taking simple comfort in the company of your faves. Take to social media for inspiration and tag @relate_charity online when sharing your pockets of joy.
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