Presents, sparkles, and sugary cocktails aside, the prospect of family get-togethers generates considerable anticipatory anxiety for many of my patients and friends. And truly, who among us has not braced ourselves to deal with the cousin for whom even one drink is too many? Or the braggy sibling’s latest success story? The parent lamenting dramatically, “I’ll never be a grandparent!”? Or the aunt pronouncing who’s gotten fatter in the last year? It’s enough to make one want to throw the sleigh in reverse and high-tail it back home.
In addition to the apprehension around how others will behave, nearly as often, the concerns I hear are about how to avoid a personal meltdown (e.g., “If he asks me one more time why I’m single, I’m going to ‘Deck the Halls’ with Uncle Phil!”).
So, what are you to do? Fake the flu? Take a Xanax? Air grievances a la “Festivus?”
No. At least, not before trying these suggestions below—some of them irreverent, each one potentially useful. See what works for you.
1.) When in doubt, sublimate. Turn that undesirable impulse into something socially acceptable. Channel your murderous rage into cutting up vegetables for the crudité. Redirect anxious twitches into interpretive dance moves. Nothing stops a boring story or obnoxious rant mid stream like interpretive dance. Nothing.
2.) Channel your inner Sedaris. Comfort yourself with the knowledge that if worse comes to worst, you can use this time together as material for some sardonically witty, cathartic project when the visit is over. Write. Draw. Cartoon everyone’s expressions at the moment when Aunt Sadie brought out the Jello mold of the White House. Write a comedy sketch about all of the characters present. Seriously. Let it out—later.
3.) Engage in (moderate) self-indulgence. Remember to have just enough of something you want to feel pleasantly “naughty” then but “nice” afterwards. Yes, you may have to drive seven hours in the snow to spend the weekend under a microscope, but you’ll also get to have some of great-aunt Mimi’s homemade fudge! Which you can walk off doing #4. Have that glass of eggnog and enjoy it. ‘Tis the season. Just don’t have 5. You know what I mean.
4.) Plan to step back from the situation—either literally or mentally. This can take the form of either reminding yourself that the visit is time-limited, and thus, you absolutely can survive it - or taking an actual walk to de-stress. The length of the walk will probably increase in proportion to the stress experienced. And that’s just fine. Putting the situation in perspective can prevent you from having a dinner table melt down that may feel good in the moment but that you’ll regret later.
5.) “Dysfunctional Family Bingo.” It’s remarkable how this game can take the edge off a family gathering. Years ago, my friend Linda suggested it to me, and I still crack up when I think about (or play) it. Here’s how: Privately or with friends who will not attend your family gathering, make a bingo square with each of the most dreaded family quirks occupying an individual box. For example, “Cousin Miriam making us eat burned latkes,” or “Joe commenting on my diet.” Place a marker on your bingo board when each thing happens. Five in a row and you can shout “Bingo!” in the middle of one of Uncle Fred’s corporate war stories.
6.) Breathe. Belly breathing can strengthen your diaphragm, slow your respiration rate, help you fell calmer in general and less reactive in stressful situations. It’s easy, free, feels good, and really works.
7.) Practice Long Division. Personally, I never like this when I was in school, but remembering that even a trying 3-day weekend represents less than 1% of your year can help you to ride out the worst of it.
8.) Adopt an attitude of gratitude. True, if there was a button that could magically transform the situation, we would push it. Repeatedly. But in the absence of such powers, finding something for which we can be grateful allows us to experience whatever is good about the lives we have—even if there are things we wish were different. Hate the burned latkes, but appreciate the love that went into making them. See the helpful intention in Granny’s cautionary dating tales. Realize that Joe’s obsession with your weight has more to do with his own stuff than you. Understand that the braggy brother probably wants you to be proud of him—because your opinion matters.
Of course, continue any self-care practices you normally engage in. My favorites are meditation, self-hypnosis, getting regular exercise, and making time to do things you find pleasurable.
In summary, let yourself have a little fun this holiday season, try not to take things too seriously, and do what you need to self-regulate. Before you know it, you might just find something a little wonderful in all of this, even if that’s your superb sense of humor.