The Freedom to Change Your Experience of the Holidays

Develop a plan to enjoy your relatives and friends across the holiday season.

Posted Dec 08, 2014

Most of us have the expectation that the holidays should be a time of joy, celebration, and fellowship. The reality, however, is that many of us look toward the holidays with a sense of foreboding and anticipation of unmet needs and expectations. Some of us will travel to a relative’s house with a sense of dread, and some of us will meticulously prepare to greet the assemblage in our homes. In these contexts, we are often faced with both joyful and unpleasant interactions that seem to characterize the season and repeat year after year. Despite our ongoing angst, the resolution to the mystery underlying these patterns seems ever to evade us. The confusing emotions we experience might scramble our thoughts and leave us grasping to make sense of what seem to be complex relationship patterns. We might think to ourselves, “If I could only figure this out, I could fix it and just enjoy the holiday.” 

Well, the good news is that in most instances the underlying patterns might be simpler than you think. I titled this article, “the freedom to change,” because once you grasp some basic principles, you can implement strategies that will allow a new pattern to unfold naturally as opposed to your trying to force a solution that you expect from the start might be doomed to failure.


The principles I am advancing here come out of my research on relationships and emotion regulation, from the principles of cognitive behavioral therapy, and have been informed by working with many clients across the years.

First, you should focus less on the specific words that people say and more on their underlying meaning or what they are looking for. Second, you should not assume that everyone is being intentional about how they think they are impacting you. You would be better off thinking about people’s behaviors in terms of how they are using them to regulate their emotions. Third, you should think about your own emotions as data or information that are telling you something about the situation and not as some certain truth that you need to act on. Using these basic principles, I have developed a set of twelve suggestions that can leave you free to enjoy the holidays.

  1. Consider lowering your expectations to match the world as it is, instead of your dream of how it should be.

  2. Take responsibility for what you are thinking and what you are saying to yourself in your head. Change the way you think and you will change your emotions and how you behave.

  3. Ask yourself, “what would happen if I let that comment go and don’t respond? Would it really make a difference in the long run?”

  4. Remember, holiday gatherings are not the best time to address underlying relationship issues.

  5. Use humor to deflect and reframe negative interactions. Make a game out of it (in the fun, not manipulative, sense).

  6. Plan activities to engage people and keep your guests busy interacting with each other.

  7. Have an idea of what each guest’s underlying needs are and try to the extent that you are able to allow those needs to be met.

  8. Take a look at what might be rewarding and reinforcing others’ negative behaviors and take away the reward.

  9. Don’t reward other people’s negative behaviors with an intense response. Stay measured and calm when reacting negatively, but loud and excited when reacting positively to other people’s behaviors.

  10. If you typically feel disappointed with your gifts, or lack thereof, then plan ways to be sure there is something special for you under the tree.

  11. Consider all of the information at your disposal about yourself and those you will interact with over the holidays and develop a plan that will allow you to enjoy as much of your time as possible.

  12. Consider how you can reach out and touch those whom you are not planning on interacting with over the holiday season.

Below is an elaboration of these points and what you need to know to put them into action

Examine your expectations

Did you at some point get sold on the idea that the holidays are something that should resemble a Norman Rockwell painting? Do you have an image of smiling healthy people laughing and singing carols by the fire? Or, do you expect the holidays to be a time when you are met with sometimes veiled, and sometimes not-so-veiled, criticism of the way you are leading your life or how you decorate your home? In either case, your expectations might set you up to experience negative emotions and maybe even act and say things yourself that might not be received well by others.

  • Consider lowering your expectations to match the world as it is, instead of your dream of how it should be.

If year after year you find yourself being disappointed that the joyful times didn’t pan out as you had hoped, then you might need to take a fresh look at what the real situation is. Carl Rogers, a pioneer of “Person Centered Psychotherapy” had the theory that people feel bad to the extent that their idealized situation is off the mark from their real situation. So, take a look at your family and friends and ask yourself if you are trying to fit them into roles that you learned watching Christmas specials on TV as a child. The fact is that we need to meet people where they are in their lives and accept what they bring, and what they don’t bring, to the table. If you can’t accept people for who they are, then you can try to change them (usually a thankless undertaking that is doomed to failure), change your own thinking and outlook, or change the environment in a way that will allow them to express different behaviors.

Change your own thinking, emotional reactions, and behaviors

In order to take charge of your own experiences and how you react to people, it is important for you to accept that with the exception of basic startle and fear responses, your emotions are not responding to what is happening around you but, rather, to what you THINK is happening around you. Think of it this way: Your emotions are unconscious functions that need you to interpret from them what is occurring in the outside world. In that respect, you are like a programmer who is feeding data into the system.  The output of the system (emotions), will simply be a product of what you feed into it. Think hurtful angry thoughts and you will feel hurt and angry. In short, don’t expect to be able to have a running diatribe (i.e., talking smack) about your least-favorite relative going on in your head while at the same time expect that you will be able to smile and behave as if you are welcoming and enjoying his or her company.

  • Take responsibility for what you are thinking and what you are saying to yourself in your head. Change the way you think and you will change your emotions and how you behave.

In order to change your thinking, you might need to figure out why something is bothering you so much. You can do this by asking yourself, “What is the threat that my emotions are responding to?” If a relative starts commenting on the towels in your bathroom or on how you are interacting with your children (were you too permissive of their jokes at the dinner table or too strict in not letting them “just be kids?”), then the threat could be that “he doesn’t think I’m good enough, she looks down on me, they think we are poor parents.” If these thoughts of yours were true, then they could have consequences for your relationships and social standing moving forward…in other words a real threat that would normally lead to negative emotions. The problem is that in relatively short interactions (e.g., a day or two) you really don’t know why someone is saying something. Maybe they mean it negatively and maybe they don’t. In either case, it is usually safe to say that most people are not that conscious or intentional about what comes out of their mouths.

  • Ask yourself, “What would happen if I let that comment go and don’t respond? Would it really make a difference in the long run?”

  • Remember, holiday gatherings are not the best time to address underlying relationship issues.

In order to help you let things go, you might think about changing the situation to make the threatening comments not seem so scary.

  • Use humor to deflect and reframe negative interactions.

  • Make a game out of it (in the fun, not manipulative, sense).

One of my clients put sticky notes with the word “comments” on top with arrows pointing to common targets of criticism around her house. Interestingly, some of her guests took this activity seriously and did in fact provide commentary. Alternately, you could have a comment box and when guests comment on your life or living accommodations say “that’s an interesting observation, can you write it down on a comment card and put it in the box?” Obviously, taking a serious situation and making it somewhat humorous won’t work for everyone, but if you could pull it off with a smile and a non-defensive manner you might see some shifts in behavior.

  • Plan activities to engage people and keep your guests busy interacting with each other.

Come up with a conceptualization or understanding of each of those “special people” in your life and what makes them tick.


Some people regulate their emotions by getting quiet and withdrawing, and some people regulate their emotions by talking. If the conversation runs out of steam and you are interacting with a talker, his or her busy brain might start looking for other things to say. And what is in her present awareness and field of vision but you, your clothes, the food you prepared, and your home furnishings? If you are prepared with interactive board games or other activities, you might provide enough stimulation to avoid being the target of someone else’s musings.

You should also be aware that some people have a need to remain guarded and not let people see into them deeply, and some people have a need to be seen and known. There is nothing wrong with any of these approaches…they are simply different. But if you are aware of the person’s underlying need, it might help you to be more tolerant of their behaviors.

  • Have an idea of what each guest’s underlying needs are and try to the extent that you are able to allow those needs to be met.

If you understand another person’s worldview and what makes that person tick, then even their crazy and irritating behaviors will make sense. If an unpleasant interaction pattern is recurrent, then it might be fruitful to spend some time figuring out what is underlying it based on some of the ideas already presented, or you might want to approach it in terms of basic animal behavior.

  • Take a look at what might be rewarding and reinforcing others’ negative behaviors and take away the reward.

A basic principle of animal behavior (yes, in this conversation, I am viewing people as animals) is that a behavior that is rewarded is more likely to be repeated. A reward can be positive or negative (and you thought it was punishment!). If you are practiced in the art of politeness and good listening, then you might appropriately nod and give short verbalizations such as “yes,” “I know,” “hmm.” With each of these behaviors of yours you are telling the other person, “I like what you are saying, “ “Interesting,” “Please continue; this is good.” So, should you really be surprised when your great aunt goes on and on boring you with things you haven’t the slightest interest in? Yet, another way you can reward people is with your shocked facial expression when they drop the proverbial bombshell or new juicy rumor or point of gossip.

On the negative side, it might be fruitful to adopt a principle from a book on children’s behavior called “Managing the Difficult Child.” The main premise of this book is that it isn’t so much whether our responses to others are positive or negative in their tone, but that it is the intensity of our responses that is rewarding. Think about it; when we are pleased with someone, our responses might be warm but typically are not that energized, excited, or intense. In contrast, when we respond negatively to someone, we often do so with the intense and loud expression of our displeasure.

  • Don’t reward other people’s negative behaviors with an intense response. Stay measured and calm when reacting negatively, but loud and excited when reacting positively to other people’s behaviors.

I am guessing that almost everyone who reads this article will be able to identify with it and easily bring  to mind relatives and friends who fit the patterns I’ve described. Of course, we then have to acknowledge that if each of us can see these patterns in other people, then we too must be those other people. So, all of the strategies I’ve suggested can equally be applied to ourselves. In that respect, it is critical that we each look at what we bring to the table in terms of our own patterns of regulating emotions and our needs to be seen and validated. These aspects of ourselves can be particularly triggering if we have old wounds or unmet childhood needs.

  • If you typically feel disappointed with your gifts, or lack thereof, then plan ways to be sure there is something special for you under the tree.

Many people I’ve worked with are disappointed year after year. Yet, they stop short of telling others what they want or need, believing that if other people truly cared, they would know what to get to bring you happiness. The fact is, however, that few of us are very good mind readers and unless we’ve been told, don’t readily know what someone else might want. So, the best strategy is often the simplest one…simply ask for what you need. What, after all, would be wrong with telling your partner that you always felt left out and deprived as a child and that it makes you feel special as an adult when you get special presents? Many partners respond surprisingly well to this type of disclosure. But, if you can’t bring yourself to be that vulnerable in opening up to another, than you can always go out and buy your own present(s). Some of you might think this is a silly and futile activity. What do presents mean if they come from ourselves, right? Well, if you look at it as if there are two of you, one hopeful child and one caring and loving adult, then the caring adult can give the gift and hopefully the expectant child can receive it, recognizing the love in which it was given.

If the holidays remind you of old losses and wounds that fill you with sadness and painful memories, then you may need to acknowledge these feelings and recognize that they come from the past. That way, when they flavor the quality of your emotions at the holiday party, you might be able to recognize  and accept them without letting then hijack your thought processes and without thinking that someone or something in the present environment is making you feel bad. Emotions exist to protect us and keep us safe, but they don’t always care that much about the span of time or about the differences in various situations. So, feel your emotions, but don’t let them control your behaviors to the extent that you say or do things you will later regret.

Develop a Plan

  • Consider all of the information at your disposal about yourself and those you will interact with over the holidays and use some of the strategies suggested here, or that you obtain elsewhere, to develop a plan that will allow you to enjoy as much of your time as possible over the holiday season.

This might take some careful thought, so don’t expect to “wing it” and get good results. You might also want to have a “plan B” that will enable you to extricate yourself if a get-together gets too uncomfortable or awkward. Have another place you can go or some friends you can call. And remember, it’s always better to leave a party while the host still wants you to stay as opposed to being the last to leave. Finally, don’t forget to count your blessings if you have enough people in your life to feel bothered by them. There are people who have no one to interact with, and the holidays can be a lonely and desperate time for them.

  • Let us all consider how we can reach out and touch those who we are not planning on interacting with over the holiday season.