How to Deal with Family Grinches

David Olsen, Ph.D, LCSW

It is always interesting to listen in on people’s holiday plans. Somewhere in the midst of shopping lists, decorations, and holiday parties comes that discussion of how to cope with family. For many, family becomes another powerful stress to be handled during the holiday.  Rather than seeing family gatherings around a holiday meal  as a warm cherished part of the celebration, these meals are often seen as something to be endured.  For some the holidays dredge up unpleasant, even traumatic memories.

So how do we cope with the stress of family holidays?  For starters, think of all the things that family or colleagues do during the holidays that drive you crazy or lead you to think of them as jerks (or something more colorful)!

In making that list, and checking it twice, resolve to be the opposite.  That is, instead of also being a “jerk” in response, resolve to be more gracious and kind.

Struggling with where to start?  Consider the following suggestions, which frequently come up in our list of complaints about holiday gatherings:

The Monologue:  There is always one person at the gathering who talks endlessly about him/herself, in great, boring detail. They successfully ignore the rest of the guests and talk on and on about him/herself. In contrast, practice Steven Covey’s suggestion to “seek first to understand.” That is, focus your energy on empathically understanding and listening to those around you, not focusing on your own wants.

The Bait: There is at least one person, often a parent, who finds a way to touch a raw nerve in each of us. The “hook” touches an old role we used to play in our family, or tries to “triangle” us into talking about a member of the family who is not there, or several other techniques that hook us into some type of reaction that often leaves us feeling like we are 15 again. We may even anticipate and expect some of these hooks and use that knowledge to prepare ourselves with a different response. In so doing, we can keep ourselves out of old reactive interactions.

Reconstructed History:  This is always an interesting issue.  Often a family member begins retelling history in a slightly reconstructed manner.  Often this elicits a painful response, and then a desire to argue for the “real truth” or simply shutting down leading to more wounding (aka simmering). Holidays are not the times for these confrontations.  Our goal is to hold on to our reactivity, smile to ourselves, and think about whether we can talk about history another time. In addition, try to not react defensively when you believe you are not being seen as you wish. If the feelings are too strong to control, we can handle the situation gracefully by having a plan for dealing with that, to: take a break from the conversation take a walk, offer to help the host, play a game - shift gears.

Misunderstood: Perhaps more than anything, our desire to be known and understood creates pain over the holidays.  No matter how old we are, we crave the experience of being seen, understood, and validated.  This often sets us up for great disappointment, Part of getting through the holidays (and most other days!) is not setting ourselves up to expect things that may never happen. Work on being yourself with family without pushing too hard to change old history. Notice when you feel defensive at not being seen as you wish. Then make a choice to accept the person’s right to their opinion. Remember that no one needs to be “right.”

Not being a “jerk” this holiday is a wonderful gift to family, friends, and to ourselves.  Practicing kindness, seeking to understand, staying out of old feuds, letting revised history stand, and tolerating being misunderstood, may even let us be “light in the midst of darkness” and celebrate joy in the midst of difficulty.