You're probably bracing for it already.
Those moments over the next however many weeks when you’ll find yourself mingling with people you wish you didn’t have to spend time with. Who, if you weren’t related to them -- or if you didn’t want to see the people who also happen to be related to them -- you wouldn’t even try.
Maybe they have political views that you think are offensive or immoral. Maybe they have an abrasive, combative personality -- they like to pick fights and get a rise out of people. Maybe you’re their common target, and they know just what to say to get under your skin. Maybe they’re just unpredictable, and you’re on edge the whole time because you don’t know what's going to set them off. Or maybe they’re those relatives who are relentlessly negative, cynical, or sullen in ways that bring you down too.
Whatever their specific traits are, one thing is certain: their attitude makes you so uncomfortable that you actually dread the family gatherings that you’d otherwise really look forward to.
But… what if you still could?
What if there were a way to not let these difficult relatives diminish the excitement you have for the upcoming holiday season?
What if you could even enjoy the relatives you usually dread?
There are specific ways to accomplish this, but before we explore them let’s cover a few important ground rules:
First of all, it may seem like what’s outlined below amounts to letting these difficult relatives off the hook. That you’re letting them get away with bad behavior.
But it’s not about that at all -- it’s only about clearly understanding where our power comes from in relationships and then acting from that understanding. Because as much as we might wish it weren’t the case, our power truly doesn’t come from our ability to change other people. It comes from our ability to change ourselves. That’s why what’s outlined below focuses exclusively on what we can do differently -- because those are the only parts of our interactions with our difficult relatives that we have any control over.
Right about now you might find yourself asking something along the lines of, “But why should I do all of this work to fix the situation when they’re the one’s who are making it so terrible?”
Because you’re not doing it for them.
You’re not doing it for them.
You’re doing it for you.
Next, there’s no denying how stressful family gatherings can be. They’re objectively a lot to handle, and practicing the steps outlined below and realizing their benefits may take some time. Be patient with yourself and realistic about what you’re going to be able to tackle in one sitting. Also, always prioritize your immediate physical and emotional safety. You’ll know what’s best for you in this department.
This process will also challenge you in new and unexpected ways, and parts of it will probably make you uncomfortable. That’s okay. Sometimes discomfort is a sign of growth, not that you need to stop moving in the direction that you are. You’re trying to become more at ease with the people who most disturb your inner peace here, and doing so will require that you step outside of your comfort zone a little bit.
Finally, not all of what’s outlined below will complement itself. Pick and choose the strategies you think will work best for you given the specific challenges you face.
With all of this in mind, here’s how you can enjoy the difficult relatives you usually dread this holiday season:
1. Be an observer.
Make a pact with yourself that you’re not going to participate in whatever drama unfolds. Observe it instead. This is easier said than done in the grand scheme of how upsetting family gatherings can be, but there’s value here. Because being an observer doesn’t mean we abandon all of our agency -- it just means we take a step back so that we can see what’s going on more clearly. Doing so will allow us to be more effective participants in the drama when we do decide to re-engage it, because we’ll understand what’s happening that much better.
2. Feel your true feelings.
Chances are you’ll feel better around your difficult relatives if you allow yourself to feel how you really feel about their behavior. Be mad, sad, disappointed, or hurt. If it’s too difficult to remain in observer mode, then don’t. Don’t filter yourself. There can be a fine line between constructively managing your emotions and suppressing them in ways that usually cause more trouble down the line, so try and discern which you’re doing and go from there.
3. Avoid sensitive topics of conversation.
Sometimes the key to not stepping on an interpersonal landmine is to not walk onto the minefield in the first place. If you know there are topics of conversation that always lead to conflict, then just don’t go there. If you’re not the one who usually brings up these subjects, don’t engage them if someone else does. Or try to redirect the conversation in a lighthearted way that makes it clear you don’t think it’s a good idea to discuss that right now.
If these conversations persist despite your best efforts (or if you just don’t feel like managing all of this so intently), then switch back into observer mode and gather all of the information you can.
4. Speak up.
Maybe the situation calls for confronting your difficult relatives. Instead of suffering in silence maybe you’ll actually feel better if you speak up about the things that really matter to you.
Speak the truth, but deliver it compassionately. Do so even if your voice quakes. Even if your hands shake. Even if you can feel your heart pounding in your chest or your body tensing up. These are all signs you’re honoring how you really feel, and this display also provides valuable feedback to the difficult people in your family that their behavior takes a serious toll on the people they claim to care about. This obviously doesn’t mean they’ll change that behavior, but at least you’ve done what you can to move things in that direction.
5. Come to a new agreement with yourself about how adults are supposed to behave.
A lot of the discomfort we feel in these situations comes from the expectations we have that adults should act a certain way, hold certain beliefs, care about how we feel, take a certain responsibility for their behavior, and be held accountable for their actions.
But… do any of these expectations reflect of the way the world actually works, not the way we’d like it to?
The answer is clearly no -- we all know adults who don’t do any of these things.
We’ll feel more at peace in these interactions if we abandon our “shoulds” and focus on what is.
As the writer Byron Katie is fond of saying, “When I argue with reality, I lose -- but only 100% of the time.”
6. Find a teammate.
You’ll feel less alone and at the mercy of the family members you dread spending time with if you have other relatives who are sympathetic to how you feel and aware of the toll these occasions take on you. Find someone you can take aside at certain points throughout the gathering to vent, compare notes, or get some quick words of affirmation.
7. Be more selective about who you ask to meet your emotional needs.
If these difficult relatives have demonstrated time and time again that they don’t care about how you feel, then stop asking them to. This is a recipe for rejection, and at some point the pain and disappointment you feel is as much a choice you’re making as it’s one they are.
8. Take a timeout.
If things get too tense or you just need a break, find a quiet place to take care of yourself. Retreat to another room or step outside to review what you’ve observed, feel any intense feelings, chat with a teammate, or give yourself whatever other attention you may need. Rejoin the group when you’re feeling centered again.
9. Understand the stage you’re actually on, and renegotiate your role.
Alright let’s talk about the elephant in the room...
Politics is such an explosive topic at the holidays for a number of reasons. First, we’re forced to mingle with people whose views oppose our own. Next, we naturally feel an intense desire to change their beliefs because we associate them with some sort of social issue. But this is a losing cause from the start because we can’t control what other people think. So we then get ourselves into a real bind when we think resolving that societal-level injustice depends on our ability to successfully change their minds -- all in the course of a single afternoon.
Talk about high stakes.
But... the dinner table truly isn’t the national stage.
And for as much stock as we put in the idea that changing individual beliefs is what moves the needle on our collective issues, that doesn’t mean that every single one of these encounters presents a genuine opportunity for that change to take place.
So, it’s time to renegotiate all of this for yourself:
Know that your difficult relatives may never change their views. Know that the social issue may still improve regardless of their participation on either side of the divide -- and that the persistence of a vocal, well-organized minority is the only way these kinds of things ever have. Know that the dining table may truly not be the stage to grapple with the issues at hand, and that you alone are not responsible for remedying the injustices of the world in every arena they present themselves. You’re just not. The stakes truly aren’t that high, and approaching the holidays like this puts way too much pressure on yourself.
This is not abandoning your principles. It’s not compromising your integrity. It’s not letting the “bad guys” win.
It’s just being more realistic about what these gatherings are meant for, the impact this relative’s behavior truly has on the fate of the world, and the role you’re meant to play on the grand stage -- and your family’s.
And not for nothing, but you will only ever be an effective agent of transformation if you’re not approaching these conversations from a place of desperation -- the feeling that you must change the other person’s point of view in order to heal the world. You need to heal yourself first -- the pain that drives the desperation. When you do, you’ll be more at ease in these interactions and other people will be more able to hear what you have to say because they’ll no longer feel your disgust for who they are.
10. Approach them with curiosity, not condemnation.
Instead of trying to punish your difficult relatives for their behavior, lead with curiosity instead. Ask yourself why they act the way that they do and see what sorts of answers you come up with. Can you identify the factors that shaped the way they relate to the world? They’re still ultimately responsible their actions, but do they at least make a new kind of sense to you? Can you see how hurtful behavior is usually rooted in its own hurt places? Does this understanding allow you to feel more compassion toward them for what they’ve endured, and approach them differently moving forward?
11. Accept them for who they are.
The only barrier to wholly accepting another person is the feeling that we need them to be different than they are (because we won’t get our needs met any other way). But… if you’ve done all of the work above to meet those needs yourself, all that’s left for you to do is be with them exactly as they are and accept them as enough.
12. Forgive them.
A lot of the time we don’t forgive the people who’ve hurt us because we think it lets them off the hook and that we don’t get anything in return.
But… forgiveness is our way of offering ourselves the healing we really need by releasing both us and them from the pain of our shared experience.
By this point you’ve done a lot of work to see your difficult relatives more clearly, and maybe you can even see a certain innocence in them. You might have gained the insight that everyone is truly doing the best they can with the interest, ability, and information they have at any given time. If you have, you’ll naturally drop the need to sit in judgment of them any longer.
13. Love them anyway.
When someone acts in a way we disapprove of or that makes us uncomfortable, we reflexively tell ourselves their behavior disqualifies them from receiving love from us. Maybe we think they don’t deserve it, that we just don’t want to offer it, that we’re not sure how to, or that we’ll open ourselves up to being hurt again if we do.
But... the work we’ve done above removes these barriers.
We’ve shifted the paradigm from “I can’t possibly be with them if they’re like this!” to “How can I be with them if they’re like this?”
We’ve given ourselves the choice to love them anyway despite their flaws.
Enjoying the difficult relatives you usually dread.
However you decide to approach family gatherings, use them. Use them for your continued growth and healing. Use them to find your way back to yourself. Use them to get clear about the situations that have confused and upset you for so long. Use them to practice all of the skills outlined above, so that you can feel more comfortable in these kinds of situations.
Because with enough practice you’ll be able to enjoy the difficult relatives you usually dread -- not necessarily because you genuinely appreciate their company, or come to like or respect who they are (though you might). But because you genuinely enjoy this process of growth and introspection -- and the potential it represents for you. To reclaim your power. To turn adversity into opportunity. To remind yourself of how far you’ve come. And to prove to yourself that you can do this.
Because now you know how to feel better about a part of your life that’s actually really important to you.
And damn if it doesn’t feel good.