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Keep Calm and Carry On: 7 Strategies for Dealing with a Difficult Family Member During the Holidays

Keep Calm and Carry On: 7 Strategies for Dealing with a Difficult Family Member During the Holidays

As bright and merry as the holidays might be, it’s inevitable that tension within families will arise. How could they not? Put together a group of people who have been more or less estranged for several months (if not a year), douse them with sugar, booze, and high expectations, and you’re bound to confront a few challenges.

There’s our Uncle Joe, who unknowingly spits when he talks, over-imbibes, and used his experience in the war as a launching pad for uncomfortable political debates. There’s our Aunt Gini, who, make no mistake about it, will find a way to bring up someone’s latest scandal just as the turkey is being served. There’s the Mother Hen, who’s a Nazi in the kitchen; the sullen nephew; the angry cousin; the philandering new husband. The list goes on, and the migraine intensifies, until the mere thought of enduring a two-hour family dinner has you running toward the hills.

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However you define “difficult” in your family, the good news is that you can keep calm and carry on. Here’s how.

1. Set boundaries.

Perhaps there was a time in your past when you were vulnerable (and, let’s admit it, a bit tipsy on your grandmother’s mulled wine) and dished about your personal life, down to the minutest, most sordid detail. Put that in the past, and face this holiday season with a commitment to remain mum, lest your stories or confessions be used as ammo in the future. And, yes: mum. When someone asks an intimate question, smile and say, “Have you tried this pecan pie?” Or confuse them with an equally intimate question, your eyebrows raised. Or distract them with a compliment. However you choose to handle the awkward moment, know that boundaries exist for a reason and no one should persuade you to cross them. It’s one of the great pleasures of adulthood.

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2. Realize you’re not a magician (or a therapist, stylist, admissions counselor, or bartender).

By this, I mean, you’re not responsible for anyone else’s happiness, nor are you there to listen to your cousin’s litany of complaints about the dating scene in Orlando. This is a crucial lesson to learn, and one that takes years to fully sink in. But think about it: if you walk into a holiday party, convinced your grandfather’s satisfaction with the event is your responsibility and yours alone, you’re destined for disappointment. Likewise, if you believe that an hour’s chat over champagne will heighten your sister’s self-esteem and lead to her making smarter, safer choices, you’re headed for a letdown. Be polite, help with the dishes, praise the hosts, offer your warmth and love, but remember that while you might be able to provoke a smile, you can’t guarantee anyone else’s contentment except your own.

3. Avoid drama.

Holidays are ripe for drama, because here’s a newsflash: spiked eggnog, rich dishes, claustrophobic living rooms, overstimulated children, and adults with their noses out of joint does not a pretty party make. Inescapably, someone will find something to get upset about—and will want you to jump on their train of self-pity and rage. Your job is to stay off it at any cost. Which brings me to my next point—

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4. Have an exit strategy.

This could be temporary (“Excuse me, I have to use the ladies’ room”) or more lasting (informing the hosts ahead of time that you’ll be leaving at 9:30 because of a prior commitment). Avoid carpooling if your riding partners have a reputation for overstaying their welcome, keep your cellphone handy, and never allow yourself to be bullied into staying “just for one more.” (We all know there’s never been a more deceptive plea.) Having a way out will give you comfort throughout the event, allowing you to acknowledge and appreciate that your time there is finite.

5. Wear a shield.

And no, I don’t mean the Batman shield you bought your son at Walgreens for Halloween—I mean an invisible shield that protects you from the insults and injuries of others. Whether your mother-in-law has a habit of saying, “My, you look healthy!” (code for “you’ve put on weight”) or your uncle criticizes your food (“Cranberry relish? Again?”), envisioning an impenetrable bulwark around you will keep you from falling prey to the outward manifestations of someone else’s self-hate. If someone says something scathing—or even downright hurtful—allow it to bounce right off you, preferably right back into their face.

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6. Open your heart, but claim it as your own.

It’s indisputable: the way we feel about someone is directly reflected in the way they treat us in return. If you have doubts about your niece’s decision to switch careers in a formidable economy or have frankly never been fond of your son’s girlfriend’s choice of attire, now is not the time to let either pettiness or harsh opinions surface. If we arrive ill-disposed towards a particular person, there’s hardly a doubt that said individual will respond in kind (or, rather, not so kindly). Smile with honestly, listen with impunity, treat everyone fairly, and your desire to get along with others will transpire.

7. Give thanks.

No matter the conflict and tension that might emerge—or even catch fire—realize that every holiday we have to spend with our relatives is a gift. Abandoning unrealistic expectations of pure harmony will enable you to appreciate the holidays for what they are: an occasion to feel the magnitude of how very blessed we are.

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Last Updated on December 3, 2019

10 Life Lessons You’d Better Learn Early on in Life

10 Life Lessons You’d Better Learn Early on in Life

There are so many lessons I wish I had learned while I was young enough to appreciate and apply them. The thing with wisdom, and often with life lessons in general, is that they’re learned in retrospect, long after we needed them. The good news is that other people can benefit from our experiences and the lessons we’ve learned.

Here’re 10 important life lessons you should learn early on:

1. Money Will Never Solve Your Real Problems

Money is a tool; a commodity that buys you necessities and some nice “wants,” but it is not the panacea to your problems.

There are a great many people who are living on very little, yet have wonderfully full and happy lives… and there are sadly a great many people are living on quite a lot, yet have terribly miserable lives.

Money can buy a nice home, a great car, fabulous shoes, even a bit of security and some creature comforts, but it cannot fix a broken relationship, or cure loneliness, and the “happiness” it brings is only fleeting and not the kind that really and truly matters. Happiness is not for sale. If you’re expecting the “stuff” you can buy to “make it better,” you will never be happy.

2. Pace Yourself

Often when we’re young, just beginning our adult journey we feel as though we have to do everything at once. We need to decide everything, plan out our lives, experience everything, get to the top, find true love, figure out our life’s purpose, and do it all at the same time.

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Slow down—don’t rush into things. Let your life unfold. Wait a bit to see where it takes you, and take time to weigh your options. Enjoy every bite of food, take time to look around you, let the other person finish their side of the conversation. Allow yourself time to think, to mull a bit.

Taking action is critical. Working towards your goals and making plans for the future is commendable and often very useful, but rushing full-speed ahead towards anything is a one-way ticket to burnout and a good way to miss your life as it passes you by.

3. You Can’t Please Everyone

“I don’t know the secret to success, but the secret to failure is trying to please everyone” – Bill Cosby.

You don’t need everyone to agree with you or even like you. It’s human nature to want to belong, to be liked, respected and valued, but not at the expense of your integrity and happiness. Other people cannot give you the validation you seek. That has to come from inside.

Speak up, stick to your guns, assert yourself when you need to, demand respect, stay true to your values.

4. Your Health Is Your Most Valuable Asset

Health is an invaluable treasure—always appreciate, nurture, and protect it. Good health is often wasted on the young before they have a chance to appreciate it for what it’s worth.

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We tend to take our good health for granted, because it’s just there. We don’t have to worry about it, so we don’t really pay attention to it… until we have to.

Heart disease, bone density, stroke, many cancers—the list of many largely preventable diseases is long, so take care of your health now, or you’ll regret it later on.

5. You Don’t Always Get What You Want

“Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.” – John Lennon

No matter how carefully you plan and how hard you work, sometimes things just don’t work out the way you want them to… and that’s okay.

We have all of these expectations; predetermined visions of what our “ideal” life will look like, but all too often, that’s not the reality of the life we end up with. Sometimes our dreams fail and sometimes we just change our minds mid-course. Sometimes we have to flop to find the right course and sometimes we just have to try a few things before we find the right direction.

6. It’s Not All About You

You are not the epicenter of the universe. It’s very difficult to view the world from a perspective outside of your own, since we are always so focused on what’s happening in our own lives. What do I have to do today? What will this mean for me, for my career, for my life? What do I want?

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It’s normal to be intensely aware of everything that’s going on in your own life, but you need to pay as much attention to what’s happening around you, and how things affect other people in the world as you do to your own life. It helps to keep things in perspective.

7. There’s No Shame in Not Knowing

No one has it all figured out. Nobody has all the answers. There’s no shame in saying “I don’t know.” Pretending to be perfect doesn’t make you perfect. It just makes you neurotic to keep up the pretense of manufactured perfection.

We have this idea that there is some kind of stigma or shame in admitting our limitations or uncertainly, but we can’t possibly know everything. We all make mistakes and mess up occasionally. We learn as we go, that’s life.

Besides—nobody likes a know-it-all. A little vulnerability makes you human and oh so much more relatable.

8. Love Is More Than a Feeling; It’s a Choice

That burst of initial exhilaration, pulse quickening love and passion does not last long. But that doesn’t mean long-lasting love is not possible.

Love is not just a feeling; it’s a choice that you make every day. We have to choose to let annoyances pass, to forgive, to be kind, to respect, to support, to be faithful.

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Relationships take work. Sometimes it’s easy and sometimes it’s incredibly hard. It is up to us to choose how we want to act, think and speak in a relationship.

9. Perspective Is a Beautiful Thing

Typically, when we’re worried or upset, it’s because we’ve lost perspective. Everything that is happening in our lives seems so big, so important, so do or die, but in the grand picture, this single hiccup often means next to nothing.

The fight we’re having, the job we didn’t get, the real or imagined slight, the unexpected need to shift course, the thing we wanted, but didn’t get. Most of it won’t matter 20, 30, 40 years from now. It’s hard to see long term when all you know is short term, but unless it’s life-threatening, let it go, and move on.

10. Don’t Take Anything for Granted

We often don’t appreciate what we have until it’s gone: that includes your health, your family and friends, your job, the money you have or think you will have tomorrow.

When you’re young, it seems that your parents will always be there, but they won’t. You think you have plenty of time to get back in touch with your old friends or spend time with new ones, but you don’t. You have the money to spend, or you think you’ll have it next month, but you might not.

Nothing in your life is not guaranteed to be there tomorrow, including those you love.

This is a hard life lesson to learn, but it may be the most important of all: Life can change in an instant. Make sure you appreciate what you have, while you still have it.

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Featured photo credit: Ben Eaton via unsplash.com

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