Difficult Relatives during the Holidays

Handling Difficult Relatives During the Holidays

As the holidays approach many of us begin to feel anxiety about family get togethers.  Whether it is just one or two difficult relatives or you struggle with your entire family, the holidays can stir up anxiety as much as they do anticipation.

The good news is that, with the right preparation and some subtle mind shifts you will be able to enjoy the holidays without all the trepidation and nerves.  Here are 7 things you can do to prepare for a fantastic celebration that will have you feeling fantastic before, during and after your family get together, regardless of how anyone else behaves.

Remember they’re doing the best they can

Whether it’s your mother in law or the cousin you only see once a year it seems we all have someone in our life who offend people whenever they open their mouth. Maybe they are critiquing your food, your children, or they are simply abrasive.  Whatever the case, they leave a bad taste in our mouths and can taint our entire holiday.

When these “negative nellies” start spraying their negativity it can be helpful to remember that, in their mind, with their perceptions, they are truly doing the best they can.  While that’s tough to remember sometimes, somewhere, on some level, they have a good intention. Maybe they don’t know how else to behave, maybe they think they are somehow being helpful. Whatever the case, they are doing the best they can.

Their judgements are not about you

If you have someone in your family who seems to always be judging you it’s important to remember those judgements are about them, not you. They are likely judging you based on some scale that applies to them, based on their perceptions and their history.  They feel they have a right to place a value judgement on you. BUT THEY’RE WRONG.

As difficult as it can be to keep this in mind, it will lead to a more pleasant and relaxed gathering.  If you are able to remember this you will be less bothered by the quiet remarks. The comments muttered under their breath will begin to give you strength, offering you opportunities to giggle at the limited view of the world they have.  Recognize that their judgements simply show that they do not understand you and your choices.  And if they choose not to seek understanding, then the judgement will most certainly reflect more harshly on them than you.

Meet them where they are

Everyone has a conversation going on in their head.  In fact, when you read the beginning of this post you likely had a bit of a conversation start immediately.  Maybe you heard conversations from last year’s holiday celebrations, maybe you heard yourself lamenting about this year’s gathering.  Whatever the conversation, it started immediately upon mention of the upcoming holiday.

If you are able to meet your relatives in the conversation that is already going on in their mind you will have an easier time communicating.  Many of our miscommunications are because we think we know what other people are thinking.  That’s not what I mean.  I mean understand where they are…if it’s your mother in law then remember, you are talking to someone who loves their child and just wants to know they’re being taken care of.  That is meeting them where they are.

Forgive those who need it

Families are complex webs of relationships. Whether your family is one by blood, by choice or both there are often complicated relationships.  There is frequently unresolved pain or sadness among relatives.  Distant or close, this can create some really uncomfortable situations.

Do yourself a favor and forgive them.  I’m not saying forget whatever happened, I’m simply suggesting you give yourself permission to let the pain, the emotions, go from the memory.  Chances are they don’t even realize you are still angry. And if they do, it’s not hurting them near as much as it is you.  Once you allow yourself to forgive you allow yourself the gift of peace.  

Setting your intention with realistic expectations

One of the biggest reasons for unpleasant holidays is disappointments or unrealized expectations.  We all go into holiday get togethers with certain expectations, hopes for family time and creating memories.  It’s when things don’t go exactly as planned that we tend to end up unhappy and wishing for a different holiday.

When you’re getting things together for the holiday, take some time to get yourself ready too.  Remember to think about how your holidays in the past have gone. What have been the struggles and successes. Where have you been disappointed and wanting for more? Those are the areas of your expectations you can adjust this year.  Set your expectations based on your past experiences and you will be more likely to get the outcome you are hoping for.

Create an exit strategy

Nothing is worse than getting stuck talking to someone you don’t get along with.  When you go to your family’s for holiday gatherings, or when they come to you, make sure you have your exit strategy in place. Nothing is made better by feeling stuck, and uncomfortable conversations at the holidays are no different.

Go prepared. Be ready for that awkward point when you will be ready to leave. Have your excuses already prepared so you don’t have to panic trying to come up with something. Find someone you can go talk to and politely excuse yourself to go “catch them” before they walk off. What you really want to do is have a graceful way to let both of you off the hook.  They may be uncomfortable too, you never know.  Having a graceful and polite way to leave a conversation will save you both a bit of embarrassment and hurt feelings.

Prepare your family for unintended offenses

Perhaps the most difficult part of sharing the holidays with challenging family members is the unintended effect they have on unsuspecting family.  While the quirks of your family members may seem like just another holiday decoration at this point, your unsuspecting spouse or optimistic children may not understand what is happening when their beloved grandma or great-uncle says insulting things to Mommy or Daddy.

Since you likely won’t be able to control how your relatives behave it is a fantastic time to teach your family the valuable lesson that they can not control how others act, they can only control how they react.  Protecting themselves from being hurt, understanding that the offenses are not personal, and knowing how and when to gracefully make an exit need to be taught to your family as well.

Armed with these tools you will be able to better control how you experience holiday get togethers.  While they don’t guarantee that things will go smoothly they do increase the chances that you will have a better than average experience and, hence, memory of this year’s holidays.

If you have particularly challenging situations to deal with at the holidays, or hurtful or abusive relatives, the best choice may still be to stay away.  Though it may be difficult to do, sometimes the best thing you can do is to stay away from potentially difficult situations.  If you feel it will be best, then it is okay to give yourself permission to opt out of the holiday gathering.  Let yourself be okay with staying home, or doing something else that day.  Allow yourself to make the decision you know is best for you.

Leave a comment below and let us know your favorite strategy to stay sane during the holiday season!  Who knows…maybe your secret will help someone else.

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