For many of us family holiday are about as much fun as invasive surgery. In fact, there is often an uncomfortable resemblance between the two; we may feel like we are being poked and prodded with metaphorical needles, tubes, or scalpels. After years of enduring these insults to our person, it is time to do something other than to sit there stoically, smile or sob sadly, or worse, become party to the proceedings by responding in kind. The last option usually results in a verbal (or worse) brawl, which is hardly anybody’s idea of a happy holiday.
Here are other options to consider in order to make your next holiday a happy one:
1. Remember that it takes two to make a conflict. If your family member(s) like to tease, provoke, or put down others, there are effective ways to control this behavior. The first and simplest (if not the easiest) technique is to ignore their remarks by acting completely oblivious – never showing any sign of recognition or injury. This will eventually stop those remarks that are thoughtless and habitual, though not really vicious.
2. If that doesn’t end the behavior, try to smile brightly and say, “Thank you” or “Okay” or something equally disarming. The message you are sending is: I know that you are trying to make me feel bad, but I won’t give you that power. They will get that message sooner (one hopes) rather than later and then look for someone else to victimize, since you are not giving them the reaction that they are looking for.
3. If someone’s behavior is beyond petty putdowns and is actually abusive or bullying, then other steps need to be taken. First, it is important to consider what is provoking the abuser. If the person has gone through great difficulties – a job loss, an illness, the death of a loved one – naming the elephant in the room may defuse the bomber. By saying with genuine concern, “It must be hard to deal with ——–,” you may very well change the tone of their conversation from negative and nasty to kind and compassionate. Honest caring can open up flood gates of pent up frustration, sadness, anger, or grief. It can be stunning to see what a true act of kindness can bring about. Clearly, there is no guarantee that this will remedy the situation or will not backfire.
4. If this approach does not bring about a change in attitude, then other tactics are needed. You still name the elephant, “I don’t understand why you say so many unkind/angry/bitter things, but you need to use gentler/kinder/constructive language if you’re going to make personal remarks.” This needs to be stated respectfully but firmly. If the situation is truly toxic, you should be prepared to state what you will do if that change does not occur, whether that is to terminate the evening early or the relationship permanently. This nuclear option also applies if your family/friends drink to excess or indulge in any other behaviors that are neither healthy nor tolerable to be around.
5. If there are unpleasant issues that arise only intermittently during the holiday festivities, there may be simple ways to remove yourself temporarily from the scene. You can: go hang out in the room where the children are gathered for awhile; take a walk to get some fresh air and perspective; excuse yourself to lie down because you feel a headache coming on (which you may well); find one positive person to engage with so you can tune out the rest; take a few deep breaths and think, “This is just a bad soap opera on t.v. It doesn’t have anything to do with me. I can ignore it.” When you sense that the unpleasantness is over you can resurface and reengage.
So, go to the next holiday gathering with a new attitude: “I am going to have a lovely, calm holiday. I will not give anyone the power to make me feel bad. I love these people with all of their issues and idiosyncrasies; I am going to do everything that I can to let them know that. Only positive energy is going to come from me. I am grateful that I have family/friends to spend holidays with; many people are alone.”
Then smile as much as possible!! Research shows that there is a continuous loop between our facial expressions and our brain. When we smile our brain thinks that we feel happy which makes us smile more, which makes our brain think we are even happier, which…you get the idea. Even when it’s not easy to smile at first, just fake it until you make it! Which you will!
Use these techniques and make a commitment to yourself to have a Happy Holiday Season!
Barbara Hayes, MS, MFT, author of the new release, Beware of Dogs, is a licensed marriage and family therapist. She wrote this book to help women understand how to determine the difference between the petty issues that plague most relationships and the big red flags that the relationship is headed for disaster. In doing so, she incorporates both Western and Eastern psychological disciplines into her work. Hayes attended University of California at Berkeley and Dominican University of California. She is a proud mother, her ‘status’ is single and she currently lives in northern California.