How to Handle Difficult Relatives During the Holidays


George Burns once said: “Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family… in another city.”

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 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.

As much as I try to prepare for the emotional storm of the holidays, I know there really is no way to fully zinger-proof conversations with certain people. But here’s an attempt to keep a little sanity.

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.

2. Befriend Yourself

Much of the dysfunctional dynamics felt during the holidays are rooted in 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 a loving adult would. 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 wounded 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. 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 some sanity tokens: a key chain with the Serenity Prayer engraved on it, my sobriety chip, and a photo of my Aunt Gigi who was brilliant at steering conversations away from drama. 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.

4. 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. 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.

5. 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 a family gathering feeling shattered, bruised, and deflated. That’s understandable. 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. You’ll need it.

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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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5 Responses
  1. Kathleen O'Keefe

    What if you’re not okay? What if the character flaws family members point out really are character flaws? How do you know that mean things others say about you aren’t true?

    1. Sim

      Then you use the bad feelings as a navigator.

      If your characters flaws bother you, let their words motivate you to become the you that you would admire and be proud of. That’s why the feelings sometimes surface

      1. Kathleen O'Keefe

        That’s difficult for a person who grew up in an abusive family, being told in every possible way that you’re worthless. It’s hard to know what’s true and what isn’t.

  2. Judy

    Thank you.. I needed this post in order toaccept myself and improve myself for me not for any one else , certain person always finds something no matter how hard I try to please not going to attempt so hard any more easpecially when i do it at the expense of my physical health… Thanks so much for this supportive post

  3. Daniel

    Ms. Borchard.
    The quality of your writing is without equal.
    I’m 65 and laying in bed still, at 11 AM, trying to move.
    It is stormy gray here and drizzling rain and snow.
    Very depressing.
    I’m on medication and under the care of both a MD and a therapist.
    Depressed at least from age 16.
    Just when I need it most, you appear.
    You have fortified me often.
    I want to save your work for rereading.
    How do I do that?
    Have you a book to purchase?
    Do you have a web site devoted to your works.

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