Holiday cheer: throughout November and December the stores are decked with festive decor, the commercials are of happy families sitting around the table breaking bread together, and the stories told at the office or at school are about the plans everyone seems to have for hunkering down and enjoying a nice time with their loving family.

It’s a great picture but it’s often not the reality for many families. Families that are torn or tense or troubled find everything negative magnified at the holidays. Many people dread going to a place where they will spend time with people they don’t like or who do not like them. The experiences range widely; for some, it is simply a dislike of a family member—perhaps they don’t agree with your job choice or give you a hard time about your haircut or clothing. In other cases, it’s more extreme; you may encounter verbal abuse for lifestyle choices or by someone who drinks too much. Whatever your scenario, instead of delight, you find yourself heading into the holidays with dread.

And it isn’t easy in many cases to say “just stay away.” You might have elderly parents that you really want to see or a favorite sibling who will be in town just for the holidays. You might have nowhere else to go and prefer being with the negativity over being alone, or the event might even be taking place in your own home, where it’s hard to make a graceful exit!

One of the sad facts of life is that you can’t change other people. Your closed-minded father, your aunt who discriminates, your belligerent brother and your neighbor who gets in everyone’s business are going to do what they do, year after year. You can absolutely get upset about it. You can walk in hoping for something new and different, only to be disappointed. You can fight with them or sulk in the corner. or, this year, you can decide you are going to be proactive and shift your approach to dealing with these situations. The good news is that you know what to expect. Here are five things to consider when you have to spend your holidays around those who irritate or upset you.

1. Create a game plan and be ready with a different response.

If your Aunt Toni always engages you in a discussion about politics and you take the bait, be ready for her this year. You aren’t going to change Aunt Toni’s mind and she isn’t going to change yours, so stop the battle. When Aunt Toni says, “So, what’s your view on the latest news?” instead of responding as you would normally do, say, “Aunt Toni, I am much more interested in what’s happening with your foot. I know you had that surgery, how did it go? How do you feel?” You might want to actually write this down, as coaches do in sporting games. Plan for a different response:

  • Name of the person
  • What they usually say
  • How you usually respond
  • Your plan to change the dialogue

2. Remove yourself from the scene of the uncomfortable event.

No, this doesn’t mean walking out in a huff or vowing never to return to your stepsister’s home. It simply means physically getting up and walking away from the troubling situation. Everyone needs to use the bathroom from time to time, so, say “Excuse me, I need to visit the restroom,” and get up and walk away. Sometimes just breaking the tension, or removing yourself, helps you to clear your mind of the negative grip. You could actually go sit in the bathroom and take some deep breaths or use positive self-talk, or if the weather permits, step outside for a few minutes. You might find others on the back porch who are also trying to avoid the negativity, whom you could commiserate alongside.

3. Practice breathing.

It sounds simple, but the mind cannot focus on two things at a time. If you are getting upset and your blood pressure is rising, your hands are getting clammy and you are seeing red, turn your attention to your breath. Breathe deeply in through your nose and let it out through your mouth. Do this silently, of course, so as to avoid getting attention you may not want. As people are chattering or fighting around you, turn your attention inward and just breathe.

4. Find a buddy and have a code.

If the neighbor from the downstairs apartment is creepy to you at these events, he may be creepy to your sister or cousin or neighbor from upstairs. While you don’t want to spend time talking negatively about someone, you could reach out and ask, “Does John ever make you feel a bit uncomfortable at these events?” If someone agrees with you, create a buddy system. If you find yourself stuck talking to this neighbor, have a gesture like brushing your bangs off your forehead or sneezing, something normal and not really noticeable to anyone except your buddy. That’s the signal for your buddy to come over and retrieve you. Or you may decide on a code for when it’s time to leave together or meet on the back porch for a quick breather.

5. Consider doing something different this year.

You may not want to miss your parents or sibling but is it possible to schedule an event or a get-together with them outside of the holiday itself? Could you volunteer on the holiday or travel with friends or go see someone stuck in a nursing or rehabilitation home? Could you find yourself “busy” doing something you might actually enjoy, and then make separate plans away from the crowds or the group get-together?

The truth is that no one actually wrote the rules that say holidays have to be a time that families are forced to be together and must fight against all odds to enjoy one another’s company! Holidays mean different things to everyone. This could be the year you start your own tradition and make holidays special for you so that you embrace their approach instead of dreading them coming.

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