The holidays can be a trying time for most of us. After all, it’s very difficult to be taken out of our familiar surroundings, placed in a confined space with limited areas to escape to, and have family members from all over crammed into the same tight living quarters. What used to be a two-bedroom house now accommodates multiple different families either sleeping in the guest rooms, on the couch or wherever there’s available space for an inflatable mattress. Although spending family time is a blessing for many of us, it can also create a host of trials to overcome. Some of these challenges are heated political debates, reminiscing old painful memories, and the feeling of being treated like you’re 14 years old all over again. If you’ve survived the holidays thus far, you might be wondering what to do next to minimize the likelihood of a family disaster for an upcoming scheduled get-together.
If you managed to come out of the holidays unscathed, congratulations, you did it! For those of you who got caught in a political crossfire, argument, or bottled up feelings of belittlement and resentment, this blog is for you. Sitting with strong repressed negative emotions after the holidays is no way to start your new year. It’s also not a healthy way to enter into another family gathering feeling all those old wounds drudged up yet again from another triggering conversation. Remember that arguments between you and your family rarely happen as isolated events. They typically stem from a mountain of other unresolved family issues that compile on top of each other. This build-up of unpleasant past experiences makes the triggering event 10 times more emotionally charged compared to a disagreement with someone you have no prior history with.
One of the best things I’ve learned along the way to more effectively deal with family drama is to have unconditional others acceptance. Now remember acceptance doesn’t mean approval. By accepting your family means that you’re making peace with who they are and acknowledge that whether you like it or not they most likely may never change. One way to do this is to be mindful of the labels that you give your family members. Some examples of these might be “loser, dumb, bad, unreasonable, ignorant, condescending, incompetent, etc.” Your family members aren’t just those things, but a mixture of good and bad characteristics just like the rest of us. If we give someone a negative all-encompassing label, all that we will notice are the disagreeable things about them that unconsciously reinforce our own confirmation biases. So instead of referring to a family member as an “ignorant person” because they have a differing viewpoint from you, it’s better emotionally to refer to them as holding onto an “ignorant opinion,” but that it wouldn’t make them entirely an “ignorant person.” Try to swap the person label to labeling their actions/opinions instead. They did something “incompetently” but that wouldn’t make them holistically an “incompetent person.”
Keep in mind that everyone is a product of their environment, life experiences and world views. To expect someone to always see things from your angle despite them not sharing the same life experiences and beliefs about the world would be an unrealistic goal. Just because someone doesn’t hold the same opinion as you doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t find common ground in other areas. To accept your family means to acknowledge this truth. All of the environmental and sociological factors that largely molded your family member to become who he/she is will not magically change just because you think they should.
During heated discussions don’t take the bait! It’s best to look for teachable moments and to use discretion whether or not to chime in and disclose where you stand on a particular issue. Knowing your family members and their demeanor is helpful when reading the room. Are the people having this discussion individuals who are interested in learning about your point of view from a place of curiosity, or are they waiting to pounce at whatever you are about to say just to win the debate? Not everyone is interested in hearing what you have to say, or are at a place where they would like to have an open and respectful dialogue to understand where you’re coming from. Many times, people just want to prove that they are right and you are wrong no matter what the cost. You don’t have to play this game if you don’t want to. If this is not the environment for a healthy constructive dialogue, then inserting your opinion might be a lost cause and not worth doing.
Lastly, it’s important to keep in mind that if someone thinks or says you are X, Y or Z that doesn’t speak it into existence. You are not defined by what other people think of you. You don’t need others’ approval, although it would be nice. Family members don’t have to see your point of view, although it would be ideal. Family members shouldn’t be different than they are, although them changing for the better would make things a lot smoother. Keeping the shoulds and the musts at a minimum can make an impact on your mental health. By eliminating the shoulds you surrender taking on complete ownership of getting people to like or accept you. This is a crucial step in improving your mental health because although we influence how other people perceive us, sometimes no matter what we say or how we behave people will still think whatever they want about us. No matter how inconveniencing their negative opinions of us may be, this still doesn’t erase the reality that people have free will to think as they wish. The consequences of not acknowledging this truth means that our family members will continue to think and act however dysfunctional they want while we get stuck with all the built-up anger and resentment along the way.
When all else fails and you’re not successful at unconditionally accepting your family members— walk away. It’s essential to be aware of your limitations. None of us are perfect people, and therefore expecting to be able to handle all family triggers well would be dishonest to ourselves. If you feel like you’re unable to control your emotions when triggered by family members, and you think what you might do or say will be something you’d later regret in a healthier mindset, find a quiet place to excuse yourself to. In that quiet space let yourself decompress, and see if you can try to change your mindset based on the previous coping skills addressed earlier in this blog. Always remember that just because it’s your family doesn’t mean you have to participate in discussions/activities that you deem toxic. You always have a choice whether to engage or not, despite the family pressures to do so.