Holidays can be a great time to connect with family — we can enjoy a profound sense of safety and belonging. But when things don’t go well, we can have intense negative reactions. When we feel tense and overwhelmed, we may try to avoid, withhold, or become argumentative. Keeping a mindful distance can help us hold onto the good in our familial relationships, while tolerating that which causes distress.
How to Prepare for Tense Moments
With preparation, it is possible to learn to manage tense interpersonal family encounters and transform them into positive memories:
Marisa, a college senior, complains about having to see her cousin on Thanksgiving: “The way my cousin asks me about how I’m doing and what’s new, I sense he views me as this 'all-over-the-place’ unstable girl who is always on the go.” When she was able to notice that there was also an element of genuine curiosity in his questions, it was easier for her to have a more comfortable exchange with him: “There is a sense of excitement in his voice when he comes and asks me questions, even though there is also some contempt.” But Marisa had to remain mindful of her layers of experience in order to accomplish this internal shift.
Greg experiences his mother as domineering: "It’s like this wrath: When things don’t go her way, you feel her rage. I don’t like to spend time with her. It triggers me big time, and I move into fight mode.” Being mindful of how his mom cares for him enables Greg to encounter her anger with more tolerance — "When I think about it, my mom does care in her own way. All her planning and organizing and arranging shows she cares. But she just needs to feel in control."
Gary, a business executive, says in a breathless tone, “I want to avoid seeing my brother this holiday. He gets so personal and provocative. He’s overwhelming and argumentative.” After considering that his brother’s inquiries might be intrusive and that he’s not obliged to respond to his questions, Gary is relieved: “You know, it’s so freeing not to feel obligated to respond. I never realized this before, and always got caught up in these long arguments and then felt drained.”
When we are able to maintain boundaries between ourselves and others, as well as remaining mindful of our emotions without acting on them, we can have family time that affirms our positive memories and creates new memories that we can cherish throughout the year.
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