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5 Tips for Handling Family Dysfunction At Holiday Gatherings

November 22, 2010

Any time we’re back in a familiar setting – like celebrating holidays with our families or in-laws – we tend to react in familiar ways.  We have a well-rehearsed, ingrained pattern of behavior we engage in, and an equally well-honed set of responses to those around us.   When the pattern is constructive, respectful and loving, the gathering feels like a blessing and the celebration it’s intended to be.  When there is stress and strain in the relationships, what could be a joyful time is marred by any variety of negativity.

Here are some suggestions for making your holidays happy by changing the only things you can control – you and your reactions.

1)  Make a conscious choice to keep the peace.

If your holiday experiences are less than peaceful and enjoyable, try something different.  Instead of interacting and responding like you have for so many years, make up your mind before you leave home or before the first guest arrives to do all you can to make your part a positive and enjoyable experience for yourself and everyone else.

When you’re triggered by Uncle Joe’s teasing about your bad taste in partners, or your Mother’s comments about why you’re dressed like that, or your sister’s stories about all the money she’s making and the places they’ve traveled to – in that moment, ask yourself, “Do I really have to respond to what he just said in the way I’ve always responded?”  Of course the answer is, “No.”  Instead, look at them and smile, choosing to add a new step to the dance between you.

At every turn, when you feel old, familiar, negative thoughts and reactions welling up, ready to burst forth, before you respond, take a deep breath and remember your decision – your conscious choice – then respond with that in mind and keep the tension from escalating.  Choose a response that honors your commitment to peace for yourself.

2) Draw boundaries.

Sometimes, the best way to add peace and enjoyment is to have clear boundaries – lines you won’t cross and lines you won’t let others cross.  This becomes especially important when others are abusive, intrusive or basically unkind.

If it’s your home that everyone’s coming to, then you are in full control.  You don’t have to invite anyone into your home who doesn’t behave in respectful way.  Set the ground rules for what’s acceptable behavior in your home and exercise your freedom of choice.  There will be consequences.  Whatever your choice, there will be consequences.  But which consequences do you prefer?  The consequences that come with going along with what has always been, even though its disruptive, disrespectful or intrusive?  Or, the consequences that come with being true to your needs and setting boundaries that support your sense of inner peace and enjoyment?

Setting boundaries is not an easy choice because our decision impacts others in the family or social group.  Try telling your guests in advance, giving them a chance to get used to the idea or, in some cases, to decide they’d rather not join you this year.  If you have new house rules, share them.  Maybe you have new carpeting and have implemented a no shoes policy, or you’ve decided that there will be no smoking in the house.  Of if you’ve uninvited someone who’s often the source of tension, advance warning may put everyone at ease before they arrive.

If you’ve done all of the cooking and cleanup, and you want to change that this year, ask for help in advance.  Say what you want.  Get commitments from volunteers to do specific tasks, arrive by a certain time to do particular prep work, or stay late to help with cleanup.

When you set boundaries, recognize that you’re changing the dynamics in the relationship, and sometimes in the entire family.  Be ready to hear and accept the reaction from others.  You don’t have to argue the point, you can simply acknowledge that you hear and understand how they feel and you feel differently.  Then be patient as everyone, including you, adjusts to the changes.

3) Physically remove yourself from caustic situations.

Another way to set boundaries is to walk away from toxic interactions. We already know which people make us uncomfortable by behaving in ways that we prefer they didn’t.  If someone begins to behave as anticipated, ask them to stop by saying, “Robin, I’m asking you to NOT do that.  I feel uncomfortable when you speak to me that way.  Please stop.”  Most people will stop when asked.  But, if Robin is not aware of her impact on others, then remove yourself from Robin’s presence.  Go to the another room.  Take a walk when Robin starts.  Or, if what you anticipate is really a bad and untenable situation, don’t go if Robin is going to be there.  Excuse yourself from the gathering and find another time to connect with everyone.

4) Wait before responding to something that infuriates you.

This is a good practice in any situation.  Reflex responses are often defensive and tend to escalate tensions, anxiety or anger.  Take a few deep breaths.  Remove yourself by getting a drink of water. Go stand outside.  Drive around the block.  Do something to clear your mind and allow your breathing to come back to normal, which is a sign that you – the grown up, rational you – are back in control.  Then go back in and rejoin everyone.

Since the moment of tension, anger, discounting or daggers to the heart has passed, no response may be necessary.  But, if you feel compelled to respond because the person brings the topic up again, by putting some distance between you and the comment or action that offended you, you can now make the conscious choice to respond calmly and rationally.

5) Use their actions as lessons on how NOT to be.

Family and loved ones offer us a great opportunity to learn about ourselves.  Notice what you say about those gathered – to another person or silently in your head.  What you notice about others – particularly family members – holds a lesson for you about yourself.

For example, if you notice how critical your father is and you comment about that to your siblings, be aware that in doing so, you are also being critical.  If you say to yourself, “We are so stiff and rigid.  Nobody talks about anything that really matters,” you are speaking about yourself because you are also being stiff and rigid and not talking about what matters to you.

Many holiday fights and frustrations come about because we want our loved ones to be different than they are.  We CANNOT control how others behave so don’t even try.  Instead of looking at them through the lens of judgmentalness, noticing what you don’t like or what annoys you about them, look at them with eyes of acceptance.  Notice their uniqueness and individuality.

If you want your family to be more loving and open and accepting, try being loving and open and accepting yourself.  Love them and let them feel your love by the way you look at them, hug them hello and pay close attention when they talk.  Be open to their reality – their feelings, ideas, beliefs, concerns and dreams.  You don’t have to agree with them, you only need to be willing to hear and acknowledge them with words like, “You sound excited.  Tell me more about that.”  “What’s that like for you?”  “What are your plans?”  “I’m glad you’re happy.”

At the heart of every individual and family is a great need for love and acceptance.  This holiday, and every day, consciously decide to do all you can to make love, peace, compassion, acceptance and enjoyment the things you bring to life – to your life and the lives of all you touch.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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