6 Ways to Deal With Difficult Family Members During the Holidays


George Burns once said: “Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city.” So that would explain why the holidays are so stressful. Those dear relatives who live in San Francisco suddenly are lingering in front of your refrigerator in Cincinnati, Ohio and you have to figure out a socially acceptable way of setting the table together, resisting the urge to re-expose the childhood wounds that you’ve learned to protect.

Here are a few tips I use in interacting with those family members who tend to wake my grumpy inner child, triggering an ugly tantrum right about the time Santa shows up with his loot.

1. Repeat: It’s Not About Me

You think it’s about you when your brother calls you a “selfish, lazy, son of a something,” but actually it’s not. He may point his finger at you and say, “You. I’m talking about you.” But he’s really not. He is seeing something that has nothing to do with who you are.

Don Miguel Ruiz says this in his classic book, “The Four Agreements”: “What they say, what they do, and the opinions they give are according to the agreements they have in their own minds…. Taking things personally makes you easy prey for these predators, the black magicians…. But if you do not take it personally, you are immune in the middle of hell.”

That’s good news for all of us who make a habit of taking everything personally. It frees us to be ourselves, even when charged with a character flaw backed by supposed evidence.

2. Befriend Yourself

Much of the dysfunctional dynamics tolerated during the holidays are rooted in the painful memories of the past. So I go back to the place in history where I first acquired my scars. I return to the original story—for example, as a fourth grader depressed and anxious who has just learned her dad left home—and comfort that scared child as my adult self. I might say to her, “It’s not about you. His leaving has nothing to do with who you are. You are loved. You are enough.”

When I feel the similar pangs of abandonment or rejection coming on over the holidays, I address the kid as would a loving adult. Once you get good at this, you can be a friend to yourself, which comes in handy if you have no direct support in your immediate family. Talk to the pissed off third grader who was just picked last at gym, and tell him that the bullies making fun of him now will all grow up to be losers with disgusting beer guts.

3. Make a plan

You would be wise to start strategizing before the doorbell rings about where you are going to sit, what conversations you will have, how you will respond to sensitive issues, and boring questions you can ask to fill the uncomfortable voids. You might invent five or so canned retorts to be used when unjustly interrogated, or compile a list of necessary exit plans should you reach the about-to-lose-it-in-a-big-way point. Visualizations can also help. For example, picture yourself inside a bubble, with an invisible layer protecting you from the toxic stuff on the outside.

4. Carry a blankie

You don’t have to give up your blankie when you’re two. Just your pacifier. To give me an extra shot of strength to make it through certain family functions, I carry a token in my pocket: a necklace a friend made for me that says, “Seeking Wisdom,” a key chain with the Serenity prayer engraved on it, my St. Therese medal that I squeezed during the two years of my deep depression, my sobriety chip to remind myself of the years I’ve managed without booze, a favorite prayer, or a photo of my Aunt Gigi or another mental health heroes. I will use everything and anything that reminds me that I am okay the way I am, and to trust the process, even though it feels mighty uncomfortable at the present hour.

5. Wait before speaking

If everyone waited two seconds before emitting toxic emotions into the environment, we might have world peace. We’d definitely have fewer automobile accidents, and then maybe all of us could afford automobile insurance! In the pregnant pause between thinking and speaking, your neurons make the essential leap from the amygdala, or fear center of the brain, which processes stimuli like a hormonal teenager, to the more evolved and sophisticated part of the brain.

Before the pause: “I’ve always guessed that you were an idiot, and you’ve just confirmed that.”

After the pause: “I’m sorry … I have to run to the restroom … but hold that thought … or, actually, don’t.”

6. Allow time to recover

Even if you’ve practiced your visualizations, arranged a safe seating chart, devised seven respectable responses to expected questions, and filled your pockets with blankies, you may come away from an evening with difficult family members feeling shattered, bruised, and deflated. That’s normal! As my therapist recently said to me, “Just because you anticipate and prepare for the blows doesn’t mean the blows won’t hurt.” Therefore, allow some needed recovery time after the dinner or weekend or, if you’re really unlucky, week of family feud.

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Therese Borchard
I am a writer and chaplain trying to live a simple life in Annapolis, Maryland.

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