The Difficult Side of Celebration: Sharing Holidays With Challenging People

Most people feel the holidays are cherished and happy occasions spent with friends and loved ones. But for many women, this statement may only be partially true. The holiday season often poses an ongoing challenge: The dreaded annual practice of spending long hours or days with difficult people who test your patience and stir up unpleasant feelings.

Oftentimes, the anticipation of the event and the expectation of what might happen “this time” can incite more stress than the eventual encounter. By the end, you may become more emotionally than physically drained, because the anxiety robs you of all your mental energy. But the stress, in whatever form, can be managed. You can equip yourself to survive the encounter with your “undesirables.”

Advisers and counselors seem to either suggest actions that promote the “suck it up and get into the spirit of the holidays” approach, or they recommend techniques such as meditation or deep breathing to help you deal with the stress you’re facing. But those behaviors, while helping you to momentarily relax, can often lead to further aggravation because they don’t solve the real problem … your troublesome friend or family member.

If you try to repress your real feelings, they will manifest either physically or emotionally. So it’s best to take productive action to deal with your challenge in a way that will help you maintain your sense of dignity. If you know that it’s inevitable that you will spend some or all of the holidays with people who seem to bring out the worst in you, equip yourself with some constructive emotional and practical tools to help you survive the time with those who cause you trouble.

Whether it’s know-it-alls, complainers, killjoys, or people who snub you or put you down, the first step to tolerating thorny people is to act with purpose. If you know that your mother-in-law is going to ignore you, give her a cordial greeting when you meet, but spend your time with others in the group with whom you feel comfortable. Keep your distance and she can’t make you feel ignored.

You may not manage to avoid the event, but you can often, to a certain degree, avoid the stress-inducing person. If you know that your sister will want to one-up you, congratulate her on whatever she’s boasting about and hang around those who are interested in your personal accomplishments. Don’t give her the satisfaction of a verbal contest, but choose to share the evening with someone who makes you feel comfortable. If uncle Joe makes off-colored jokes, stay out of hearing range, or gently inform him that you don’t find those kinds of jokes funny.

Although engaging with a difficult person can sometimes instigate further problems, your first objective is to protect your sense of self-respect. This, however, should always be attempted with poise and reverence-never with an attitude of defiance. To seek engagement in a power play will be ineffective within a group setting because tensions are often high and egos are on display. Save the “we need to address this problem” discussion for another time midyear when the two of you are alone.

Another approach is to imagine how the interaction might look if everything went well. This visual can lend a clue as to what might need to happen to bring about the most ideal scenario. Perhaps if you toss your sister a compliment she may warm up to you.

Keep in mind that there are those who try to intentionally hurt you and those who may simply be socially clueless and cause hurt only because they don’t know how to be polite. These two behaviors are distinct and should be recognized and managed as such. Poor grandma, who may not know how to give a proper compliment, should not be handled in the same way in which you’ll handle cousin Irma who always tells you that you’ve put on a few pounds simply to get a rise out of you.

Let’s face it, your festive occasion won’t be easy and it may not be fun, but you can make the most of it and preserve your emotional health. Face the music but don’t let them steal your instrument.


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