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6 Ways Holiday Visits Can Stress You Out

Do you have covert aggressors in the family?

//], via Wikimedia Commons
Source: By JJ Harrison ( (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Jean is an archivist at a major university in her early thirties, but spending holidays with her family makes her feel like an awkward teenager again.

Her mother greets her at the door with “Where did you get that outfit, the second hand store? Your hair’s too long. You need a permanent,” and later adds “After all I’ve done for you, you should visit more often.”

Then piling on the flattery, her mother enlists her help with holiday parties. And Jean falls back into her dutiful routine of cooking and cleaning, setting the table, and serving the appetizers while her mother charms the guests and her brother regales them with his latest round of jokes.

After the guests have left, Jean clears the table and does the dishes while the rest of the family watches television. When she finally sits down to relax with a novel, she hears “You’re being selfish. You always have your head in a book. You don’t care about your family,” or “You’ll never find a man that way. Why can’t you be more like your cousin Jill?”

No matter what she does, it’s never enough. Her mother’s remarks keep Jean emotionally off balance, manipulating and exhausting her.

Psychologist George Simon has written about covert aggressors, people who attempt to control and manipulate others. This can happen even in our own families. Do any of these tactics sound familiar?

  • Shaming: using subtle sarcasms and put-downs to increase fear and self-doubt in us, making us feel inadequate, unworthy, and likely to defer to them. Sometimes involves just a look or tone of voice.—“Where’d you get that outfit” etc.
  • Seduction: using charm, flattery, overtly supporting us to get us to lower our defenses and trust them. They play on our need for approval, for being valued and needed—Jean’s mother piles on the flattery to enlist her help with holiday parties.
  • Playing the Victim Role: pretending to be the victim of circumstance or someone else’s behavior in order to gain sympathy, elicit compassion, and thereby get something they want from us.—“After all I’ve done for you.”
  • Blaming the Victim: aggressors who play the victim often use this tactic. Finds a way to blame us for supposedly aggressing against them to make us feel guilty, put us on the defensive--“You’re being selfish.”
  • Guilt Tripping: one of the aggressor’s favorite weapons, manipulating conscientious people by attacking their conscience, keeping them in a self-doubting, anxious, submissive position.—“You don’t care about your family.”
  • Covert Intimidation: threatening their victims with implied or veiled threats to keep them anxious, apprehensive, disempowered.--“You’ll never find a man that way.”

Knowledge is power. Enjoy your family and friends this holiday season, but don’t let covert aggressors use guilt, shame, and other covert tactics to manipulate and exhaust you.


Covert aggressive tactics from Simon, G. (2010) In Sheep’s Clothing. Little Rock, AR: Parkhurst.


Diane Dreher is a best-selling author, positive psychology coach, and professor at Santa Clara University. Her latest book is Your Personal Renaissance: 12 Steps to Finding Your Life’s True Calling.

Visit her web sites at


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