In the past week, casual conversations have shifted to include holiday plans and family traditions. Within these discussions, inevitably, someone shares a sense of dread about a certain holiday gathering. The source of the dread is usually tension between family members, personality clashes or unresolved conflicts. A coworker shared a conversation she heard at the store between husband and wife, wherein the wife said, “If you don’t want any holiday stress, we’re going to have to move to an island!” For some, avoiding these stressors may be a viable option, and for those in families with abuse or toxic patterns, it may even be necessary.
But most people feel sort of “stuck” in the momentum of the holidays and the traditions of their families- unwilling to avoid it all together, but unsure how to manage it all with ease.
How do you respond to your uncle’s comments about your failed marriage?
What do you say to the cousin who insists she loves you, “even though you’re gay!”
Where do you turn your eyes when you see the disdain your aunt has for her elderly mother?
There is no simple way to ease the complexity of family dynamics over the holidays, but I do have one manageable tip for you:
Prepare for these interactions ahead of time, and you will be set up for an improved holiday experience. By considering the outcomes and options, you can inoculate yourself against some of the emotional strains of the holidays.
Here are some ways to make this work:
- Brainstorm expected conflicts or uncomfortable/awkward scenarios. Make a list of the things that usually trigger your anger (or shame, or guilt, or any of the overwhelming emotions you may experience). It might read something like: “Cousin Bob will tease me repeatedly for being single at 40, Aunt Liz will fall asleep on the couch and my kids will laugh at her drool, my brother-in-law will make inappropriate jokes while we eat…”
- Identify avoidance opportunities. Can you sit further away from the obnoxious cousin? Can you have the kids play in another room so Aunt Liz’s drool isn’t an issue? Can you enlist another family member to join you in asking your brother-in-law to ix-nay the dirty jokes? For most of these things, the answer is probably “no.” Because if it were “yes,” you probably would have tried it before, right? Still, consider a few options to see if you can’t adjust the environment a bit to go more smoothly.
- Visualize and rehearse. Now, assume everything will unfold just as you dread it will. The mean-spirited teasing, the bodily functions, the off-color jokes. And then get VERY clear on why you are attending this particular function. “Because I have to” is not an answer. “Because it’s important to my wife, and I want our marriage to stay strong, and this is one way I support her” is an answer. “Because my family is crazy, but my kids really love seeing their cousins once a year” is an answer. “Because I’d rather be steeped in this chaos than home alone tonight” is an answer. Get really clear on the “why,” because that will set the tone for your experience. Once you get clear on that, visualize each potential incident and the predictable dynamics. Then consider the response that will most closely align with your “why.” When your brother-in-law starts in on a joke, maybe you excuse yourself to fix your wife her favorite cocktail. The kids start staring and smoking Aunt Liz, maybe you bring them all into the other room and set up a game of tic-tac-toe. When cousin Bob reminds you that your clock is ticking, maybe you splash a glass of water in his face because that’s rude and how dare he! I’m kidding- but rude comments and teasing are the hardest to prepare for. One option is to plan to excuse yourself quickly- feign a potty emergency if need be!- and avoid contact as much as possible.
- Game on! Arrive at the function with your “why” in mind, and keep it clear throughout the event.
Holidays were not made for Hallmark, but they certainly can be a step up from “dreaded.”
Thanksgiving is just days away. Are you dreading any parts of this? If so, take a moment to work through this plan and see if it improves your experience. Let me know how it goes!