The holiday season is upon us!
The pandemic has reminded all of us of the importance of being together, and this time of year you might be especially be looking forward to spending time with your extended family. But of course, bringing people together also carries the potential for personality conflicts, so hopefully you know how to find common ground.
But that isn’t always so easy. You might have cousins who both want to visit you but haven’t spoke to each other in many years. Maybe you fear your brother will bring up politics, which can be a bad idea when your other brother is around. Aunt Jennifer will sip too much eggnog, and say something nasty to you or worse, one of your children. Nona, your MIL, will demand – once again – that all the family gather at her house when you would rather start holiday traditions in your own home. Cousin Jacob will show up unexpectedly, right as you are about to take twenty minutes for yourself.” Your father-in-law will chide, “You gave me too much food again,” rather than thanking you for his favorite oyster dressing.
The potential scenarios swirl around in your mind – and you can obsess and begin to feel overwhelmed.
Families are supposed to be our buttress. Our go-to. Our safe asylum. That’s the case for the lucky, but many families are flawed – because people are flawed. This season you may grieve the family that could’ve been while dealing with the family that is, whether that means navigating serious problems or soothing minor disappointments.
What can help you through your less-than-ideal holiday season?
1) Use an “observer” stance.
This is when you subtly detach from the goings-on of the day. You remain involved or friendly, but you also keep a bit of emotional distance. You intentionally observe yourself and others as you go about your day, almost as if you were going to write a report on your own family, “My Family Interactions At The Holiday.”
It keeps your perspective more objective, and your emotions somewhat at bay.
Remember, it’s not your job to control how people in your family choose to act. But you can use your assertive voice and say, “This isn’t the time to talk politics. Let’s change the subject. ” Or suggest a game or an activity that will help structure the time your family spends together.
2) Don’t over-personalize.
Remind yourself of what you know about the people in your family that makes them act the way they do – that has nothing to do with you. “What do I know about my brother that might cause him to not give me a hug – that isn’t about me? He is unhappy in his marriage. He may be depressed. Maybe he didn’t shower…”
If you can answer the question, you’re more likely to shrug a hurtful behavior off so it doesn’t ruin your day. It’s not about you, it’s about them.
3) Take your share of the responsibility, and move from reacting to responding.
Maybe you yourself are a little controlling, or not very go with the flow. Maybe you’re feeling bad about yourself, having a rough time, and are more sensitive at the moment. Maybe you’re just plain exhausted.
If you take responsibility for your own potential to take things the wrong way or be difficult, then your half of any problem will be much easier to admit. It’s not easy to accept that you’re perhaps the link between conflict with others, but holding up an honest mirror to yourself can be helpful.
You can also predict ahead of time that “x” is likely to happen, so you can plan what you’ll do if and when it does. That’s moving from response to reaction – an overall really great thing to do.
4) Look for the good and ask for professional advice if needed.
Most folks get up in the morning with the intent to live their lives the best they can that day. If you focus on what’s good about people, then that will grow in your mind. You’ll be able to notice those things and enjoy the relationship.
There are definitely exceptions to this, for example: people with sociopathic or abusive behaviors, those that seem to live to manipulate or deride others, or those that have addictions that are out of control. If you have someone like this in your family, there’s a problem that’s much more significant than a simple holiday disappointment. Please reach out and talk to someone who could help you figure out a strategy for some kind of action.
5) Hang out with your family of choice.
Our friends are our family of choice — the one you’ve created all on your own. They can often provide what your family of origin won’t or isn’t capable of offering. If you can absorb those things from your good friends, then whatever pain or issue you have with your biological family will not feel as intense. Disappointing perhaps, but not as hurtful.
So breathe. Be mindful. Love where you can. Enjoy what there is to enjoy. Relax a little.
May you have a meaningful and peaceful holiday season.
You can hear more about relationships and many other topics by listening to my podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford. Subscribe to my website and receive one weekly newsletter including my weekly blog post and podcast! If you’d like to join my FaceBook closed group, then click here and answer the membership questions! Welcome!
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Originally published on December 22, 2017; updated on November 12, 2023.