Advertising
Advertising

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.

Advertising

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.

Advertising

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—

Advertising

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.

Advertising

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.

More by this author

A Sorry Letter To My Mom, Though She Passed Away A Long Time Ago Study Finds Cat People Are More Intelligent Than Dog People Keep Calm and Carry On: 7 Strategies for Dealing with a Difficult Family Member During the Holidays Things I Wish I Could Tell The Man I Thought I Would Grow Old With 12 Bittersweet Experiences Of a Long Distance Relationship That No One But You And I Can Understand

Trending in Communication

1 12 Simple Ways You Can Build A Positive Attitude 2 How to Get Motivated and Be Happy Every Day When You Wake Up 3 Feeling Stuck in Life? How to Never Get Stuck Again 4 3 Ways to Reprogram Your Subconscious Mind to Reach Your Goals 5 Practical Advice for Overcoming Problems in INFP Relationships

Read Next

Advertising
Advertising

Last Updated on December 16, 2018

12 Simple Ways You Can Build A Positive Attitude

12 Simple Ways You Can Build A Positive Attitude

We all look for a better and happier life, but somehow we realize it’s our attitude that makes it hard to lead the life we want. How can we build a positive attitude? Grant Mathews has listed out the things (from the easiest to the hardest) we can do to cultivate this attitude on Quora:

1. Listen to good music.

Music definitely improves your mood, and it’s a really simple thing to do.

2. Don’t watch television passively.

Studies have shown that people who watch TV less are happier, which leads me to my next point…

3. Don’t do anything passively.

Whenever I do something, I like to ask myself if, at the end of the day, I would be content saying that I had spent time doing it. (This is why I block sites I find myself wasting too much time on. I enjoy them, but they’re just not worth it when I could be learning something new, or working on projects I care about.)

Time is incredibly valuable.

Advertising

4. Be aware of negativity

A community that considers itself intelligent tends to be negativity because criticizing is seen as a signaling mechanism to indicate that you’re more intelligent than the person you corrected. This was irrationally frustrating for me – it’s one of those things you’ll stay up all night to think about.

5. Make time to be alone.

I initially said “take time just to be alone.” I changed it because if you don’t ensure you can take a break, you’ll surely be interrupted.

Being with other people is something you can do to make you happy, but I don’t include it in this list because nearly everyone finds time to talk with friends. On the other hand, spending time just with yourself is almost considered a taboo.

Take some time to figure out who you are.

6. Exercise.

This is the best way to improve your immediate happiness.

Advertising

Exercise probably makes you happy. Try and go on a run. You’ll hate yourself while doing it, but the gratification that you get towards the end vastly outweighs the frustration of the first few attempts. I can’t say enough good things about exercise.

Exercising is also fantastic because it gives you time alone.

7. Have projects.

Having a goal, and moving towards it, is a key to happiness.

You have to realize though that achieving the goal is not necessarily what makes you happy – it’s the process. When I write music, I write it because writing is inherently enjoyable, not because I want to get popular (as if!).

8. Take time to do the things you enjoy.

That’s very general, so let me give you a good example.

Advertising

One of the things that has really changed my life was finding small communities centered around activities I enjoy. For instance, I like writing music, so I’m part of a community that meets up to write a song for an hour every week. I love the community. I’ve also written a song every week, 37 weeks in a row, which has gradually moved me towards larger goals and makes me feel very satisfied.

9. Change your definition of happiness.

Another reason I think I’m more happy than other people is because my definition of happiness is a lot more relaxed than most people’s. I don’t seek for some sort of constant euphoria; I don’t think it’s possible to live like that. My happiness is closer to stability.

10. Ignore things that don’t make you happy.

I get varying reactions to this one.

The argument goes “if something is making you unhappy, then you should find out why and improve it, not ignore it.” If you can do that, great. But on the other hand, there’s no reason to mope about a bad score on a test.

There’s another counterargument: perhaps you’re moping because your brain is trying to work out how to improve. In fact, this is the key purpose of depression: Depression’s Upside – NYTimes.com

Advertising

I can think of examples that go both ways. I remember, for instance, when I was debating a year or two ago and my partner and I would lose a round, I would mull over what we had done wrong for a long time. In that way, I got immensely better at debate (and public speaking in general – did you know debate has amazing effects on your public speaking ability? But now I really digress).

On the other hand, there’s no way that mulling over how dumb you were for missing that +x term on the left hand side will make you better at math. So stop worrying about it, and go practice math instead.

11. Find a way to measure your progress, and then measure it.

Video games are addictive for a reason: filling up an experience bar and making it to the next level is immensely satisfying. I think that it would be really cool if we could apply this concept to the real world.

I put this near the bottom of the list because, unfortunately, this hasn’t been done too often in the real world – startup idea, anyone? So you would have to do it yourself, which is difficult when you don’t even know how much you’ve progressed.

For a while, I kept a log of the runs I had taken, and my average speed. It was really cool to see my improvement over the weeks. (Also, I was exercising. Combining the two was fantastic for boosting happiness.)

12. Realize that happiness is an evolutionary reward, not an objective truth.

It’s easy to see that this is correct, but this is at the bottom of the list for a reason.

Read Next