The holidays are coming and you’ll be spending time with your family. With an impeachment investigation dominating the news, the usual family differences may be heightened this year.
Holiday gatherings can be tough, even in the best of times, because we’re surrounded by images of seemingly happy, loving families that get along or, at least, seem to resolve their issues amicably. This can lead us to expect the same from our own family, even though it’s never been the case in the past. Such images can be so strong, we expect our family members to miraculously be different than who they have been all along. How can you deal with your stress and prevent holiday gatherings from turning into a nightmare?
Awareness is the key to effectively managing stress.
Mentally prepare yourself to accept family members as they are
Take an accurate assessment of your family members. When we’re around people who can easily annoy or upset us, it’s easy to see only their negative side. Write down both their positive and negative qualities—and focus on the positive.
Expecting family members to be something they’re not will lead to disappointment and make it difficult to spend time with them. After a while, we wish they would change what we don’t like about them. Just accept them for who they are—both positive and negative qualities.
If you can’t find positive qualities, ask a good friend or family member to help you reframe some of the negative qualities. Remember, who they are is the result of their own unique experiences. Another family member may be able to help you gain patience (and hopefully compassion) for them.
Strategies for minimizing negative interactions
You may have done a good job of loving your family from afar, but now, thanks to the holidays, you find yourself around family members who have been toxic to your emotional and mental health. The key is to strike a balance between loving your family members and keeping yourself sane. Try these strategies for minimizing your negative interactions in order to have more enjoyable holiday gatherings.
While you’re around family during the holidays, keep the conversation on neutral topics—like food, family traditions, and happy or humorous memories.
Some family members are so good at pushing our buttons they can do it with a simple comment even before the conversation gets going. Keep in mind most people’s favorite topic is themselves. If you turn the focus of the conversation back to them and their positive qualities, they will be less focused on you.
If you can’t stay calm, take a time out. Excuse yourself to go to the restroom where you can be alone and regain your calm composure; get something to eat or drink; or talk to someone else (e.g., “Oh, there’s Aunt Ruth. I haven’t seen her in so long. I should go say hi.”). The key is to end the conversation and keep things from getting worse.
Once the meal is over, play games—the sillier the better—and get back to laughing together.
Your relatives are who they are because of their personal experiences. You are who you are because of yours. Everyone has a right to have an opinion. Sometimes opinions can be influenced—but you can’t expect them to change. Accept your family for who they are and remember you are only seeing them for a short time. You survived growing up with them. You can easily survive a holiday with them.
Sandra Thebaud, PhD, is a psychologist with a specialty in stress management and a former Navy Lieutenant Commander. She is the author of two books on stress management.