As Mary Karr once noted, “I think a dysfunctional family is any family with more than one person in it.” And the added stress of the holidays tends to bring out the best, the worst, and the most manic in all of us. Family are usually the ones who know us most intimately, and so generally know how to push our buttons better than anyone else.
But, as the old adage goes, the only thing you can control is your own reaction. So here are some fail-safe tips for dealing with family in a way that won’t end up with tantrums befitting the Grinch.
Know what you’re in for, and prepare accordingly
The best predictor for future behaviour is past behaviour. In other words, don’t get your hopes up that this is the year that your father will suddenly stop making passive aggressive comments about your job, or your insufferable Aunt Peggy won’t point out to everyone that you’re still single. But pre-empting how the conversation will play out can work to your advantage. Create some responses to inevitable questions that you’re comfortable with; these can be formulated to get the uncomfortable topics over and done with, or serve as zingers to make it clear that you’re not interested in engaging in a negative conversation. Additionally, it might be helpful to create some quick questions or jokes to ask to fill awkward conversational gaps. However you decide to deal with your family, remember that your conversation should be productive- that is, working towards establishing a more chilled-out environment.
Remember that people’s behaviour is about themselves, not you.
Projection is a coping mechanism used by just about everyone, and unfortunately, it comes across most strongly in those who are least happy with themselves. Reframing how you think of a nasty comment- from it truly being about you, to it being an indicator of how dissatisfied the commenter is about a particular aspect of their own lives- can work wonders for coping with that situation.
Creating and defining emotional boundaries is essential for self-protection and preservation. There’s no right or wrong way to do this; rather, let your personal level of comfort be your guide. Rather wonderfully, this can be done by literally creating physical boundaries- so for example, sit far away from those you don’t want to deal with, or get up and mingle so you can rotate. If someone dominates the airspace, feel free to turn to the person next to you and begin a new conversation. If you’re dragged into a conversation that you can’t get away from easily, create boundaries by using Statements like “that’s an interesting way of thinking about things. My take on that is different.” Alternatively, you can disengage completely by not validating what they say, for example, exclaiming a quick “Oh! Is that so?”, and then promptly moving on with conversation.
Call in for backup
We all get by with a little help from our friends. If you’re really struggling to deal with your family at any stage, excuse yourself and make a phone call to a friend (or, as I like to think of them, ‘family that we choose ourselves’). If you anticipate that you’ll have an absolutely rotten time at the holidays, arrange with a friend to have a specific check-in phone call where you both give yourselves a few minutes to complain about how horrible your respective families are. Once you’ve given yourself a little venting and decompression time, you should feel less alone and more able to cope with the family your haven’t been able to choose.
Create an exit strategy
Set yourself a time where you excuse yourself from the family event. Perhaps this is as soon as dessert is being cleared from the table, or when the 8 o’clock bus home is due. Being able to see an end in sight generally makes just about any situation much more bearable, after all. If you’re supposed to be staying with family, but fear that things could go up in smoke at any second, create a back-up plan to crash on a friend’s couch for the evening. Having a strong sense of control can work wonders for your peace of mind and demeanour.
Slot in recovery time
Just because you brace yourself for a clobbering doesn’t mean that it won’t hurt. Remember that feeling a little bruised is totally normal, and something that many of us go through. Schedule in a few hours (or even days) to recover and spoil yourself a little. Whether this means going for a long walk, scheduling a date with the couch and your favourite TV series, or a long lunch with a few friends, make a conscious effort to give yourself a pat on the back. Take this opportunity to reflect on how far you’ve come, and to celebrate that you’re done for another year!