Holidays with our loved ones do not always conjure joyous feelings. Many of us experience anxiety and even dread when we think about visiting our families. We worry about falling into old patterns of behavior, regressing into less mature versions of ourselves when confronted with bombastic older brothers, overbearing grandmothers, or inappropriate uncles. We spend a large part of our adult lives healing from past uncomfortable and sometimes painful relational experiences, only to be thrust back into them under the pretense of togetherness and goodwill.
Bright lights, lavish gifts, and sumptuous meals falter under the heavy weight of the energy it takes to manage competing personalities and outdated family dynamics. We survive the festivities rather than enjoy them. Yet, we persevere year after year, because the spirit of love, faith, and gratitude seems worth the struggle.
If we are going to make the effort, then perhaps we can learn to cope with these stressful encounters without draining our emotional reserves. Moving through the holiday season with a greater sense of peace requires a little mindfulness regarding your reactions to challenging family members.
Identify the Source of Your Discomfort
Is there a particular family member you worry about seeing? Why? How has this person made you feel in the past? Does your intuition tell you to move toward or away from this person?
Imagine How You Would Like the Encounter to Go
Do you wish you could be closer to this person? Do you feel the need to protect yourself from this person? How would you like to be able to respond to this person?
Once you understand your needs in relation to this family member, you can begin to create a strategy to navigate your interactions with increased confidence and composure.
Become aware of who this person is in reality, not just in your mind. Our assumptions and images of difficult family members are often inaccurate, as they are usually based on the memories of children trying to make sense of incomprehensible situations. Indeed, our childhood rationalizations can even keep us involved in relationships with those who have abused us. In lesser circumstances, our ideas of how relationships look may be based on how they have always been and limit any possibility for growth.
To accept family members for who they are, start by determining when and how their distressing behaviors manifest. Think back to interactions with your family members. Without judgment, observe their behavior. Notice how they communicate and connect with others. Become aware of their capacity for empathy, their tolerance for conflict, and how they present themselves to others. Consider how their age, culture, or background may influence how they relate to you and others in the family.
What conclusions can you draw from your observations? Is it possible that the cousin who seems so uncaring and aloof is really anxious in large gatherings? Or perhaps your overly critical aunt criticizes only when she feels insecure around her highly successful sister?
Remind yourself that their behavior is not directly related to you and that a specific set of life experiences led them to be who they are today. You don’t have to take others’ choices personally.
Create Reasonable Expectations
Consider your own personal expectations of others’ behavior. Are you expecting behavior that they are willing and able to offer? Or are you placing conditions on them that they may not be able to meet, and therefore creating frustration within yourself? Are you willing to relate to them differently? If you are, consider offering compassion to the family members who struggle to connect and create new ways to engage with them. If you are not, remember not to personalize their behavior to keep from reacting to or escalating uncomfortable situations.
Be aware of circumstances where you might be vulnerable and consider ways to create protective boundaries. You might avoid being alone with someone who antagonizes you. You could identify a trusted friend or family member who can serve as a buffer against harm. Be thoughtful about your alcohol intake, as it can impact your perceptions and ability to respond appropriately to others. Notice how alcohol affects those around you, as it can amplify unsafe situations.
As you create new ways of interacting, remember that old family patterns might prevail, resisting the change you envision. Your efforts to cultivate new and healthier relationships may not be reciprocated. Again, don’t take this personally. Instead, offer yourself compassion for your positive intentions and continue to accept the reality of your family member. You might even consider who can support you in the event the encounter does not go the way you hope.
Taking the time to understand your needs this holiday season will allow you to negotiate your family relationships with an increased sense of safety and self-control. That way you can focus your energy where it belongs—on celebrating with your loved ones.
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