It’s holiday season again and that means getting together with family you haven’t seen in a while. The scent of Thanksgiving turkey is probably still fresh in your mind. You might still be stewing on an old argument you had with Aunt Mary over her political stance. Maybe you're still ticked at Cousin Bill’s rigid view of how you should be raising your kids.
The holidays should be a time of happy reunions and warm wishes, but often they are filled with anxiety, stress, dread, and hurt feelings. There might not be any way to avoid seeing Aunt Mary and Cousin Bill or hearing them vent their opinions, but there are ways to decrease stress.
One quick fix is not to attend the dreaded family party or get-together at all. You can withdraw from the chaos and create your own traditions. But what if that’s not what you really want to do? What if you genuinely desire to see the rest of your family and enjoy this festive time with loved ones? (Despite those annoying few).
· Know what’s coming and prepare yourself
· Learn your triggers
· Choose your battles
· Try listening (Are you really going to change their mind if you argue?)
· Don’t drink or limit your alcohol intake
· Find the one good thing
Prepare yourself for what you know is coming
Do you lie to yourself every holiday and hope this get-together will be different? Are you in denial about your Aunt Mary and Cousin Bill?
Be honest with yourself, history has been known to repeat itself.
You know what’s coming, so prepare for it. Have an exit plan, a distraction, a way of escape if you know you’ll be cornered and forced to listen to political garb for an hour. Be aware of what gets to you and learn how to deal with these triggers in a positive and successful way.
Learn your triggers
Family conflict can be deep rooted and grounded in the past. A difference of opinion that raises the hairs on the back of your neck very often is about something that happened years ago between you and this person.
Weeks before the event, notice your reaction to this person and their usual comments. Do they even have to speak before you notice steam coming out of the top of your skull? A tightness in your chest? Be realistic in how things have gone in the past. Don’t lie to yourself.
· Notice your body and what you are feeling.
· Is there unresolved conflict from the past involving this person?
· Examine the triggers that usually set you off and remind yourself that this happened in the past.
· Be in the moment. Try not to be bound up in yesterday’s unresolved conflict. Be present in today. An awareness of your overreaction about Bill’s comments on how you’re raising your kids will be key in keeping you grounded in the present moment. Reminding yourself not to dwell on the past fifty times he corrected your parenting skills will keep you calmer.
Much of your triggered frustration with another person is really about old stuff you haven’t dealt with. Do yourself a favor and talk to someone about it, even if it’s just a friend or family member.
Work through your issues of resentment and acknowledge that you can’t anyone but yourself. You can only change the way you react to this person by dealing honestly with your own triggers.
When you become triggered and react, you give up your power. Take the time to examine this and get to the root of the problem.
Choose your battles
You’ve probably heard this phrase when dealing with your children or spouse. The same tip applies to handling issues with Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay difficult people in your life:
Choose your battles wisely. You have the power to make the choice.
Will it really matter if you allow Mary her five-ten-minute babbling on politics without trying to change her mind or setting her straight? After all, is she going to be able to change your mind in the next few minutes? Probably not. Your arguments may only create defensiveness in her. I doubt you’ll be able to change her views either.
So choose the battles wisely. If someone is being offensive, rude, and you are in danger. Act by removing yourself from their presence. Walk away. Help out in the kitchen. Request the assistance of someone quickly. Physical or verbal abuse is never okay.
If you need an emergency distraction to a harmless annoyance while at a party, try dancing, mingling with other guests, or just going limp and listening. Try letting the woman vent.
Listening to another person even when you don’t agree doesn’t mean you are agreeing with them or allowing your mind to be changed. Listening is not an automatic mind-warp where you’re original thoughts become jellied and lost.
Notice how it feels to just sit with your silence even when you don’t agree with someone. How does it feel? Is it driving you crazy to just listen to a viewpoint you disagree with without arguing your point?
Be curious about where those feelings are coming from and how intense your physical reaction is.
Listening can be difficult but this act just may help the other person feel heard and validated. Maybe they have no one who really listens to them or maybe they are a narcissist and in love with their own words. Do you really have to win this small war?
Maintaining eye contact, nodding, and using small vocal expressions that say, “I’m listening. I hear you,” can say a lot and create calm within that other person. When they have vented out, chances are they will move on. If not, you have your exit plan in place. Use it.
Abstain or limit alcohol intake
Alcohol consumption can cause folks to be loose-lipped and foolish. Don’t allow this person to be you. Limit how much you drink so that you can maintain your senses and composure. Who wants to be remembered for the next twenty years as the person who said or did something stupid because they had too much to drink?
Find the one good thing
Maybe arguing or sparring with family or friends at a holiday get-together isn’t really the issue you are dreading. You might want to avoid the event because you never have any fun at these types of gatherings. You might play the scene over and over in your mind and dread the food, being around the people, and the casual conversation with your spouse’s family and friends. You just want to stay home.
My suggestion is that there is something good to gain from being supportive to your spouse, mother, or friend within attending the event you so dread.
Find that gold nugget. It’s there. Maybe the food is fantastic: the dessert or the sweet potato casserole is to die for. Possibly it’s the dancing or the five-minute peek at the game that is on the television and the camaraderie of standing around the television with a dozen other guys not really saying anything at all.
Your spouse may be very thankful that you attended when you didn’t want to, but more importantly, that you didn’t complain.
Finding the one good thing can be difficult and something you’re not used to doing. It’s a fun game I play with my grandchildren when they complain that what I’m offering or not offering is boring or stupid or horrible.
Searching closely for one positive in a sea of dread causes you to be creative and curious. Chances are you will find something at the event that is good, even if it is as trivial as a kitchen tip, a great recipe, or information on an upcoming event you hadn’t known about.
Use this last tip in your everyday life and you will begin to see things in a more positive way, rather than always diving into the worst and most negative aspect of the experience.
I do hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving and pray you have an even more glorious Christmas with family and friends. Maybe you’re spending it alone because of COVID and won't have to worry about relational issues. However you spend your holiday, may it be filled with joy and wonder … and no stress.
“If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” Romans 12:18 (ESV)
I’d love to hear the positive ways you handle stressful gatherings and difficult people during the holidays.
Lori C. Helms M.A. LMHC