The holidays are a time when family conflicts often bubble up to the surface.
“We often have expectations that the holidays will be magically perfect in every way,” said Terry Barnett-Martin, a marriage and family therapist. “Or, we hope they will be better than last year, and that people will get along.”
But alas, that's usually wishful thinking.
Here’s some advice from Barnett-Martin, who has had been practicing therapy for more than 20 years, on how to deal with difficult family gatherings:
Figure out what you’re “bringing to the party.”
Barnett-Martin’s advice is to start with personal expectations. She said it’s important to ask the question, “What am I going to bring to the party?” in an emotional sense. That can involve determining what role a person will play: whether to be a quiet member of the group at a family gathering, or whether to bring a sense of fun and lightness.
Self-reflection can also be valuable in the sense that it can help someone realize that they’re a difficult person in the eyes of others, said Barnett-Martin. If that's the case, pledging to make changes if necessary is a great plan for the holiday season.
Don’t expect others to change.
Barnett-Martin said that while it’s not unusual to go into the holidays with high expectations, “people are who they are.”
She added that while it may not be easy to accept, it's important to come to terms with the fact that “it’s not your responsibility to boss anyone else around or make someone else be what you want them to be for you.”
Recognizing that can make interactions with family members much more pleasant, she said.
Be aware and prepare.
This tactic includes being “compassionately aware of your own vulnerabilities … the things that will push your buttons or the tender parts of your heart and mind,” said Barnett-Martin.
She said that especially in families, people may use sensitive topics to get under another person’s skin. But figuring out in advance how those emotional vulnerabilities might be used can help lessen their sting. Barnett-Martin used the example of someone acknowledging that they haven’t lost the weight that they had resolved to shed, and that it’s OK.
“You’re sort of bolstering yourself so nobody can tell you something about you that you don’t already know,” Barnett-Martin said.
At the same time, Barnett-Martin stressed that it’s also important to always treat yourself kindly and lovingly: “Don’t beat yourself up,” she said.
Use your imagination to deflect conflict.
Besides doing a mental run-through of potentially sticky interactions, Barnett-Marin said that creating visual images of healthy barriers — literally — can be useful.
Barnett-Martin suggested taking an inventory of who is likely to be at a particular gathering, and what you can expect from them. For a relative who consistently makes thoughtless or hurtful comments, she said to imagine building a fence between their “property” and yours. In those situations, Barnett-Martin said, the goal is for that fence to be “tall enough so that I might be able to hear it, but it’s not going to get to me,” she said. “He might say it, but it’s just not going to land because there’s a nice fence there.”
The benefit of taking that inventory and using imagination is that not every fence needs to be the same, Barnett-Martin said. Some people may take a brick wall, she said, while others just need a little picket fence.
The reward for all this preparation is being able to relax at gatherings — no matter who is there, or how many difficult people are around.
“When you go into a gathering of people with that kind of rehearsal … having used your imagination,” Barnett-Martin said, “you are completely covered … and can trust yourself to handle any situation that comes up.”