'Tis the Season for Family Drama

7 tips to keep the family grinch from stealing your holiday cheer.

Posted Dec 23, 2018

 For many people, the Grinch who steals Christmas isn’t a diabolical cartoon villain, but an all-too-real family member who spoils their holidays.

 ‘Tis the season when many clients seek advice about how to maintain their sanity and self respect sharing a table with relatives who trigger them. It’s an important question, one that some people spend their entire lives struggling to answer.

Relatives excel at pushing our buttons because they usually created them in the first place. Parents and siblings may criticize flaws in us they find hard to tolerate in themselves, while we in turn may return the favor, blaming them for making us that way. Ram Dass, a famous spiritual teacher and clinical psychologist, is famous for telling his meditation students, “If you think you’re enlightened, go spend a week with your family.”

Yet coming to terms with our family relationships affects all our other relationships. If we can remain cool, confident and connected to ourselves in the presence of difficult individuals who share our DNA and/or history, we’ll have an easier time getting along with others.

 Distancing vs. Suppressing

The question then becomes, “how?” When the stress of relating with family is too much to bear, people generally cope in one of two ways. Either they distance themselves emotionally and/or physically because it’s just too painful to endure close contact, or they suppress who they are to avoid rocking the boat.

Neither of these solutions really works in the long-term. Distancers often perpetuate this pattern in other intimate relationships, checking out when times are tough. Alternatively, suppressers remain developmentally stunted so long as they are unable to know or express what they truly think and feel, and often lose themselves in intimate relationships.

Because family bonds are so psychically powerful, the key to successfully navigating them is being able to distinguish the ties that constrain from those that connect us to one another. Of course, sometimes it may be absolutely necessary – even healthy - to keep a comfortable distance from toxic, abusive family members. But generally speaking, it’s better to remain connected, even if by a thread, than sever ties completely.

7 Tips to Help You Survive the Holidays

In my 10-week online writing course “Reframe Your Narrative About Challenging Relationships" (only $10), I offer writing exercises and insights that can help you transform the way you view and navigate difficult family members over the long-term. But here are 7 quick tips to help you survive the holiday season together:

1) Take a personal inventory: Get in touch with your best self. Think about who you are and how you feel when you feel loved, seen, and really shine. What are your core values? Focusing your mind this way will help prevent you from taking comments too personally or feeling that your family is a reflection of, or on, you.

2) Set boundaries: Get clear on what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Distinguish between the little annoyances you can let slide and the larger issues that may require you to speak up for yourself. Know there’s a difference between taking a stand and making a scene. Sometimes you can just say, “I’m uncomfortable with your tone.” Keep boundaries loose enough to allow for positive mutual exchanges.

3) If you can't agree try empathy: You don't need to agree with your family to get along. Even if you maintain different opinions or values, you can empathize with the feelings underneath. Suppose you have different political beliefs. You might say, "I imagine it must be hard for you to think the child you brought into the world doesn't share your values. It's hard for me as well because I love you so much."

4) Explore your own assumptions: Instead of being focused on how you are perceived by your family members, consider whether you are seeing who they really are. Often, we may be tempted to demonize certain family members. This makes it easier for us to justify our victimhood, instead of taking a long, hard, honest look at how our own prejudices, assumptions, expectations, and vulnerabilities may be contributing to the conflict.

5) Don’t try to change anyone: If you don’t like it when relatives try to change you, then imagine how they might feel about you wanting to change them. The hard reality is that you can’t change anyone, you can only change your reaction to him or her. However, in changing how you react, you may change the adversarial dance you’re doing, either by switching the steps or, if need be, finding the courage and clarity to make an exit.

6) Reframe your narrative: When we feel like a victim, we feel a heavy sense of powerless. But what if you could reframe existing tensions as opportunities to open your heart, strengthen your emotional muscles, and increase your flexibility? One way to do this is to view your life as a story, and yourself as the star of that story. Every story has an antagonist who challenges the protagonist to stretch and grow beyond his or her comfort zone. Try rooting for yourself the way you’d root for the hero of your favorite novel or film. What would you like the hero to do or say in response to the abrasive parental criticism, the passive-aggressive sibling remark, the complaining child? Reflect on the ways you could grow as an evolving character in your story.

7) Try to keep a sense of humor: When all else fails, consider the words of author Anne Lamott, who said it best in a recent Facebook post:  “Families; hard, hard, hard, no matter how cherished and astonishing they may also be….At family gatherings where you suddenly feel homicidal or suicidal, remember that in half of all cases, it's a miracle that this annoying person even lived. Earth is Forgiveness School. You might as well start at the dinner table. That way, you can do this work in comfortable pants.”