A Survival Guide to Holiday Family Time

Staying connected sometimes requires mindful distance.

Posted Nov 28, 2017

By Eli Hillman, LCSW

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:

  1. Remember why you are there. Ideally, family members share mutual respect and appreciation. At our core, we want to connect, to care for others, and to feel cared for by others. When we encounter conflict, it is important to remind ourselves that beneath the discord is a deeper desire for connection.
  2. Stay mindful of your emotions. Take note of both your positive and negative thoughts. There are positive and negative emotions that accompany these thoughts. When we stay mindful of both our thoughts and our feelings, it is easier to tolerate the negative and enjoy the positive. We don’t let the negative overshadow the positive, and thus lose the opportunity for feeling close.
  3. Don’t personalize other people’s behavior. When we experience negative emotions, we tend to take the other person’s behavior personally. Often, how someone chooses to behave has little or nothing to do with us — it is about them. Being mindful of how we are all separate and each of us is responsible for our own behavior can help us see others as “just how they are.” Many times, no reaction is required.
  4. Take a timeout. Taking a timeout and regrouping can be refreshing and healthy. Time alone can help us retrieve the better parts of ourselves, feel whole, and regain a sense of separateness — it facilitates a feeling of control over our environment. Taking time to allow our thoughts to wander, we can relax and feel less tense and even more open-minded.
  5. You don’t have to answer every question. When we answer questions that feel too private, we often feel intruded upon and exposed. So when questions or topics feel too personal, we can politely move on to the next topic. When we respond to inquiries that feel comfortable and decline those that don’t, we experience a greater sense of agency.

Marisa

     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

     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

     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.

Eli Hilman, LCSW, is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Psychotherapist in private practice in Forked River, NJ.  He graduated the William Alanson White Institute’s Intensive Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy Program.