How to Survive Holiday Family Gatherings
5 Tips for Dealing with Difficult People at Holiday Family Gatherings
The table is set with your holiday dishes and best silver, and the smell of the cooking turkey is wafting throughout the house. Fresh pine garland is draped just so over the hutch and bookcases, the Christmas tree is dripping with twinkling lights and memento ornaments, while packages are strewn under the tree waiting to be opened. You look around one more time checking to make sure everything is set, and then the doorbell rings. The first of many family members has arrived.
“Nice decorations, where’d you get them? You know, you should have checked with me first. I know where to get the best ones. Oh, and I wouldn’t have draped the garland like that, I would have done it this way,” says Bossy McBoss as she moves the garland you took the time to get just right. As she rearranges it, a few specially placed decorations fall to the ground with a crash. She continues, “ I wouldn’t have put those there either, see what can happen?” Your mouth is open and nothing is coming out.
Across the room you hear Bigsy B. Little clear his throat as he warms up his on-stage voice while approaching your sister, Hope. “Incoming!” you whisper to yourself, wishing Hope could hear you and duck for cover. Too late! Bigsy B. Little is on the hunt. “Well, it looks like your New Years resolution didn’t quite stick. Twenty five pounds, hmm, looks like you found them rather than lost them.” She turns beet red and is completely frozen. You rush over to feign the need for help in the kitchen and take her by the hand to lead her away.
Later as everyone is seated for dinner, Bigsy says, loud enough for all to hear, “I pray the turkey isn’t dry as a bone like it was last year.” Everyone silently turns to look at you as if watching a Ping-Pong match, and it is your turn.
The holidays, for all of their hopeful preparation and sparkle, can come apart at the seams very quickly when difficult people do what they do. We all know some variations of people like these, who can strike fear and dread into the holiday experience, but you can change that. You can have your holiday cookie and eat it too when you follow these 5 tips.
Don’t expect others to change. Our greatest power lies in creating change within ourselves. Though you could delve into the whys about difficult people, and the insight might prove interesting, the fact is, they are who they are and you cannot change them. In fact, it’s a good idea to take a personal inventory to make sure you aren’t someone else’s difficult person. If in all honesty you suspect you are, make a few minor adjustments and promise yourself you will give your best this year.
Be aware and prepare. It is crucial, when facing difficult people, to be compassionately aware of your own vulnerabilities. Knowing and owning them gives you the opportunity to decide how you want to address or deflect intentional insults. Difficult people often home in on a person’s vulnerability and go in for the kill instinctively. That’s how Bigsy B. Little managed to destroy Hope with his well-placed insult. His aim was to make her feel small so he could feel big. If Hope had already compassionately owned that she had fallen short of her goal, she would have been comfortable in her own skin, and able to respond without feeling stung. Self-awareness and self-acceptance are the two strongest weapons against bullies like Bigsy B. Little.
Use the power of your imagination. In the best relationships and especially in the most difficult, boundaries are the key to a sense of personal well-being. But how do you create good boundaries? One highly effective exercise, called Tending Fences, uses the brilliance of your creative mind to find solutions to these difficult relationships.
For instance, let’s take the situation with Bossy McBoss…
Imagine you own a large piece of land that adjoins the property of Bossy McBoss along its border. The current fence that marks the boundary is small and broken, and Bossy often jumps the fence to snoop around on your land, leaving a mess. Because everything is possible in your imagination, you design a new fence 30 feet tall and 5 feet thick with features that allow her good qualities to come through, while a Teflon finish ensures that her bossy negativity doesn’t stick. This clear message, mostly to yourself, ensures that nothing she says or does can get to you. Use this Tending Fences exercise for each difficult person and write or draw a description of your custom built fences for future reference.
Review and Resolve. For the week leading up to your holiday gathering, take a few minutes each day to review your Tending Fences work, tweaking each fence as you see fit. Know that when the offending person delivers an insult, the fence will do the work for you, keeping you safe and intact.
Trust yourself. Once you’ve done your Tending Fences work, trust yourself. It will give you a sense of well-being and confidence that will not only be a gift to yourself, but to your family and friends as well.
With these 5 tips you can relax and know that you have everything you need to survive the holiday family gathering and truly enjoy yourself. You’ve got this! Happy Holidays!
Terry Barnett-Martin, M.S., LMFT is a relationship counselor in private practice in Southern California. She is an openhearted, intuitive practitioner and writer who is dedicated to helping people find the purpose and path in their life and relationships. Website: www.tendingfences.com; www.truepurposecounseling.com