Laugh, Cry, Live

Pondering the emotional side of life, beginning to end.

Bah Humbug—Are the Relatives Getting On Your Nerves?

Six sanity-saving tips for mindfully enjoying your family over the holidays

The holiday season is upon us; a time of joy, reflection, and family togetherness.

Or maybe not so much? Like many people, you may be bracing yourself for family togetherness, given how truly annoying some of your relatives can be.

We’re not talking abusive, disrespectful, addiction-based behaviors, which are quite another story and call for serious self-preservation tactics, such as restricted visiting hours and adamant limit-setting.

We’re talking garden variety quirks and tics. Grandma can talk the paint off a fence post. Grandpa is as deaf as a fence post SO YOU HAVE TO TALK REAL LOUD, SEE? Brother sniffs up his snot. Sister is always running late. Nephew fidgets. Niece bathes in perfume. Uncle exaggerates and brags. Auntie is a terrible cook. Cousin A snaps her gum. Cousin B sulks. Dad makes terrible puns. And Mother keeps asking, “Do you want instant coffee?” even though you hate it and always will.

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Oh, to endure family time without being driven to distraction! Here are some mindfulness-based stress reduction tips to help you tolerate the seemingly intolerable.

Pinpoint and manage your stressors during this time of year. Forgiving quirks can be a snap during a summer family reunion picnic or a lazy week at the beach. Not so much when you’re stressed by the hustle and bustle of winter holidays. Think of all you’re managing: multiple social obligations, seasonal decorating, party-planning, travelling, gift giving, holiday cards, too much sugar, not enough sleep, winter weather, and fewer daylight hours—not to mention usually being confined to crowded indoor spaces. Boost your tolerance by saying “No’ to the activities you don’t really enjoy, and revel in the ones you do. And get thee outdoors when you can. Nature is a balm, even when the snow flies.

Acknowledge bereavement. This time of year can pose challenges as you may especially miss a loved one’s presence and wistfully ponder what might have been. The lack of daylight and sunshine can also provoke melancholy. You may find it soothing to invite others to reminisce openly or honor your loved one with a ritual like candle lighting or ensuring their favorite dish is on the menu. Give yourself temporary respite from your grief by focusing on your breath, the present moment, or the gratitude and wonder of the season.

Address your sensory sensitivities. Are you particularly sensitive to loud noise? Sharp, rancid, or sickly sweet odors? Bitter, sour, or spicy tastes? Rough or gooey textures? Bright light or quick movement? Quirky too, are ye? No worries! Pinpoint your sensitivities, accept this about yourself, and address them. For instance, if you’re sensitive to noise, wear ear plugs (you can cut the squishy kind in half so they don’t stick out) or after a while, excuse yourself for a walk outside or seek respite in a quieter room. Is the air too strongly scented? I personally have been known to cover or stow scented candles, and the hosts have been so busy, they were none the wiser. But you can be more forthright and request that strong scents be moved from common areas. Or call your perfume-laden niece, tell her how much you’re looking forward to seeing her, and ask her if she would mind leaving the perfume at home, as it triggers physical discomfort in you. Bouncy nephew? Challenge him to a snowball fight, arm wrestling, or teach him how to play charades. Auntie’s food inedible? Eat before you show up for dinner, bring a sandwich, or better yet, offer to contribute to any meals. And by all means, wear comfortable clothing. Even dressy occasions needn’t doom you to scratchy or ill-fitting garments. Bottom line—you have every right to take care of yourself, and you can do so quietly, unobtrusively, and with grace. By creatively addressing your physical sensitivities, you’ll better tolerate the annoyances you can’t control.


Hold a positive perspective. When you’re pretty sure your brain will catch on fire if Uncle launches into another tall tale, acknowledge that quirks and annoyances are neither cardinal sins nor are they directed at you. Instead, be mindful that what you might find tedious or exasperating in a family member, you’d forgive in a total stranger. If he or she was a character in a film, you might be chuckling. You can also practice cutting folks some slack by focusing on their strengths and benevolence. Remind yourself that Brother Sniffles has allergies. Sister Tardy always arrives with good cheer. Uncle Hyperbole is quite the story teller. Grandma Fence Post shares the family lore. Grandpa just wants to be included. Cousin A is engaging and funny. Cousin B runs deep. And Mom and Pop really do mean well. Practicing compassion, not judgment, also puts you in a positive place.

Don’t make assumptions. Rather than jump to the conclusion that people are annoying you on purpose, or “If they cared about me, they’d change,” confront what’s going through your mind by asking, “Am I sure?” “Am I sure that Sister ruins the party by running late?” “Am I sure Cousin B sulks at me?” “Am I sure that Mother offers me instant coffee because she doesn’t love me?” Instead simply observe the facts, “Sister is running late,” or “Cousin B feels down,” or “Mother offers instant coffee.” Drop the assumption that their quirks are about you, and remain curious about where they’re coming from. And if you see a need for change, turn that around and ask yourself what changes you can make in yourself—changes in attitude, perspective, assumptions, communication, and approaches—in order to be less irritated by others.


Accept your own quirks.
Sometimes, when someone’s quirk gets stuck in your craw, it's because this person is reflecting a part of yourself that you find less than savory. So instead of reacting unfavorably, acquire the habit of mindfully wondering why you’re so irritated by certain people. Turn the mirror around and forgive yourself for sharing their foibles. With new awareness of your own annoying attributes, you can strive toward self-improvement (focus on yourself, not others); self-care (you know when to say something and when to let it go); and self-acceptance (which can help you be more accepting of others) —and watch your annoyance disappear. 

At times, "saying something" can be the most appropriate response. When offering feedback is a worthy, honest, and helpful endeavor, done with kindness, compassion, and maybe a splash of humor, saying something can be a gift that leads to positive change and improved social awareness. But sometimes, the quirks that annoy us are just people harmlessly being themselves. And that's when it's best to set aside judgment and be more curious, compassionate, and relaxed around each other.

Deborah L. Davis, Ph.D., is a developmental psychologist and author of 6 books, including one about perinatal hospice titled A Gift of Time.

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