How to handle the questions and emotional ups-and-downs of the holiday season. (Image: Yahoo Health)
The holidays are a time of brightly wrapped presents, sparkling white twinkle lights, parties peppered with champagne cheers… and, festive dinners attended by relatives you may not have seen in a year. For a reason.
Even for those lucky few for whom family rendezvous more closely resemble a Norman Rockwell painting than a therapy session gone wrong, the holidays can be a stressful time, with financial strain, social pressures and any lingering family turmoil combining into an apex of anxiety. “For many people, it’s forced togetherness,” Carol Bernstein, MD, associate professor of psychiatry at NYU Langone, tells Yahoo Health. “For some people it’s not, they really use holidays as time to come together in a happier way, but when there are tensions in a family and the holidays have become the time when family gets together, it’s stressful.”
The problem is that “we have very high expectations of being perfectly loving,” says psychiatrist and mental health and emotional wellness expert Gail Saltz, MD, “and of course that’s never really reality. Putting family all together under one roof for an extended period of time can be both wonderful and terrible. You love each other, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re used to or comfortable with each other, and there will be skirmishes.”
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These seasonal skirmishes with loved ones often arise because “when we go back to our home, we tend to regress to our old familiar roles within the family,” explains Guy Winch, PhD, psychologist and author of Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure, and Other Everyday Hurts. “We go backwards into our childhood roles, and all of the family dynamics that were present in our childhood are often still present. Even if you’re 50 or 60 years old, when you’re with your parents you can still take on that role and revisit all the emotional wounds you still have from that history.”
But that doesn’t mean that you have to resolve yourself to white-knuckling your way through the holidays. Our dysfunctions may not just disappear because it ‘tis the season, but you can still enjoy yourself — with or without a little eggnog to take the edge off. (No judgement. Unless you spill.) All it takes is a little preparation. “Be realistic about what your pressure points are, where the difficult moments might be,” urges WInch, “You’ll often see families having the same fights between the same people year after year. If you know it’s coming, decide how to handle it before you go.”
“Think of it like preventative healthcare,” adds Bernstein. Take the time to “think about who in your family generally sets you off, what kind of questions you generally get asked that set you off, and spend a couple of minutes to predetermine a way to handle that trigger. If you’re prepared ahead of time, it just might turn out not to be as bad as you anticipate.”
With that in mind, here are practical approaches to five common scenarios you might find yourself encountering with family this holiday season.
20 Questions, “When Are You…” Style
When are you getting married? When are you having children? Having another child? Buying a home? Pick a life milestone, any milestone, and there’s a good chance someone in your family is going to want to know when you’ll achieve it. (Never mind if you actually want to.) Fresh from travel, you’ve barely made it through the door when the questions start hitting you full force in the face and suddenly you’re longing for the comparatively manageable chaos that was the airport security line. Don’t let this happen to you.
“If you know something is coming, it is perfectly acceptable to make a pre-call to address it,” says Saltz. “Reach out ahead of time and just say ‘I know this is on your mind. Trust me, it’s on my mind too. But I love our time together, and I don’t want to create tension. So if you really want to talk about this, can we do it at another time?’”
If preemptive communication isn’t your thing, Winch suggests preparing talking points in advance to ensure that you are able to graciously sidestep an inquisition. “Think about how great so many politicians are at answering questions without really saying anything, and brush up on your non-answers ahead of time,” he recommends. “Think about what answer will give enough information for them to be satisfied, without you feeling that you’ve given anything away.”
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For example, when an overly eager grandparent-to-be hits you up for a procreation timetable, simple tell them “That’s something that we’re talking about, and when we have news, you’ll be the first to know.” (This non-response can, delightfully, be applied to almost any life event.) If you’ve spent the year building a new business but aren’t ready to divulge the details, come armed with a canned response at the ready: “Well, these things are like a roller coaster. When we’re clear of all the corners, I’ll let you know.” Asked and answered.
To keep things light-hearted, there’s no harm in leaning into your sense of humor, says Bernstein. “See if you can make a joke about it. Humor is a great way to defuse the situation without exacerbating it. A funny quip can often deflect the question when saying ‘stop asking me that’ would only make the situation worse.”
The Infamous Racist Uncle
Pass the rolls, not the casual racism, please. As people of different generations and political persuasions gather together this holiday season, you may find yourself in the unfortunate predicament of sitting across from one Drunk Uncle-esque relative as they unleash a gravy boat full of subtle or overt racism, sexism, or homophobia on the dinner table. Sure, your jaw drops. But should you engage them? Or perhaps just yell "Pie!” and run out of the room?
“You have to use an assessment for your particular family,” says Bernstein. “Think ahead of time about if it would be productive to even get into persuading them to change their minds. If you sense that you’re not going to get anywhere, then just say ‘I realize everybody is entitled to their own feelings, but it bothered me,’ and agree to disagree.”
Remember, “you can only change yourself. You can’t really change someone else who doesn’t want to be changed,” advises Saltz. “But if someone says something that makes you uncomfortable, you don’t have to just sit there. It’s okay to excuse yourself, and then when you return to the table, begin a conversation with a different family member.” And if you anticipate relatives with differing political views may be eager to engage despite your reticence, come prepared with an arsenal of topics that you are comfortable directing the conversation towards. (Saturday Night Live was really onto something with that Adele sketch.)
But, “if you’re offended, I think it’s always fair to say something,” says Wench. As long as that something doesn’t include straight out calling said offensive family member a racist, sexist, homophobe or worse. Try calmly telling them, “’I think you’re entitled to your opinion, but I really want you to be aware that I find it difficult to hear. Maybe this is something we can not talk about.’ A lot of times, people are more agreeable to hearing it than you might think.”
Your Aunt Might as Well Work for Weight Watchers
You have been dreaming about your mom’s over-the-top holiday pie buffet for approximately 364 days. You eagerly approach the spread when your aunt leans in with a not-so-subtle recommendation to “stick to one small slice.” And, boom: You’ve gone from eager anticipation to self-conscious frustration in one comment flat. Thanks, Auntie-know-it-all. You look great, too.
Food anxiety can be all too common around the holidays, what with the plethora of seasonal social engagements centered around eating, and an overly critical family member doesn’t help anyone — even if that was honestly their intention. “It takes a lot of training to enlighten a family that [comments of this nature] are not a great idea to be making,” explains Saltz. “To some degree, what they do actually backfires, as you’re more likely to be stressed by what they’re pointing out and eat more.” The key is to stay calm and simply let them know that this is the case. Say, “when you point out things like this that seem designed to make me feel badly, it actually backfires and makes my ability to control the situation harder, so can we please just not go there?” The more reasonable and collected you are able to sound, the better you will be able to get your point across.
Whatever you say, Bernstein recommends sticking to the first person — it’s about sharing your experience and your feelings. For example, saying something like “I feel bad when those things are said to me” will get the message across cooly when something like “you make me feel horrible when you say those things” could be interpreted antagonistically. Another Bernstein-approved option, If you’re comfortable? “Tell them that you struggle to keep weight off — that will shut them up, by the way.”
That Sibling Who Never Forgets
Sometimes a visit with family members we’ve known since childhood but don’t see that often in our adult life can feel a bit like being shoved back into the middle of a very old, very tired story we thought we’d come to the end of long ago. The characters are intrinsically familiar, and everyone jumps right back into the roles they’ve been playing for decades: the black sheep, the good kid, the overprotective parent. (Cousin who always starts the holiday dance party? You are the delightful exception. Never change!)
All too often, these hardwired roles come complete with years-old arguments just ready and waiting to be revisited. Like in the case of a sibling who seems to pounce on any opportunity to bring up that time in high school when you borrowed — and lost — their favorite shirt, or that time in college when you borrowed — and wrecked — their car.
When a relative keeps bringing up the same years-old issue again and again, it’s okay to just say, “Look, I don’t want to have this conversation anymore,” advises Bernstein. The real underlying issue “is probably about the present, not the past. You just have to decide if you want to engage or not.” And if not, then simply acknowledge their feelings with a basic “I’m really sorry that you still feel that way” and walk away.
"If it’s happening year after year, they’re just trying to start a fight,” says Winch, “and you don’t have to collude with that.” He recommends using a classic negotiation tactic to handle relatives who seem to put arguments on repeat: Compromise. “Tell them, ‘This is something that we discuss every year, and it just makes me — and I’m sure you as well — feel bad. If we were discussing and resolving it, that would be fine, but we’re not, so this year, in lieu of the fight, let’s just have a hug for a moment.’ And they may look at you like you are absolutely crazy. But what you’ve done is offer a compromise: They want a fight, you want a hug.” You can always meet in the middle and have neither. Either way, the conversation is, blessedly, over. (For this year.)
Maybe you were raised attending church every Sunday but began to identify as an atheist as an adult. (You’re not alone: The share of Americans who identify as atheists has roughly doubled in the past several years, and the percentage of adults who call themselves Christian fell to 71 percent in 2014, down from 78 percent in 2007.) Maybe you are a proudly practicing member of the Jewish faith who married a devout Catholic. (Again, you’re not alone: Almost four-in-ten Americans who have married since 2010 have a spouse who is in a different religious group.) Maybe you just have a healthy dose of agoraphobia and the mere thought of cramming into a crowded midnight mass gives you hives. Either way, how do you tell grandma that you’re not sure you will be attending services with her this year? Do you tell her?
"It’s a personal call: You have to decide how much is it worth to take a stand and not go, as opposed to gritting your teeth and just going along with it,” says Bernstein. “Can you sort of stuff it and put up with it, ‘cause it would mean a lot to your parents? Or would it bother you so much that you don’t want to go? Take the time to think about it. Anticipate that it will come up, and figure out how you want to proceed.”
“If you, for example, have changed your religious views” and no longer feel comfortable attending church services with family, “then I would say that,” recommends Winch. Just be sure to plan ahead. “That’s the kind of thing I would let them know before the holiday. It’s not something you want to spring on them when it’s Christmas Eve, and suddenly you announce that you’re not going to mass.”
Be aware that, for your parents or grandparents, the issue may not be just with the mass itself, but rather with the impression your absence will make on their friends. If you’ve attended church as a family in years past, when you don’t join them now, “all of their social circle could be asking them where you are,” Winch explains. But you can get around that by giving them talking points. He recommends saying something along the lines of “Going to church is not something I feel comfortable doing. Would it be okay if you just tell people that I just don’t feel well?” Give them an out, and they won’t feel embarrassed. They don’t feel embarrassed, and you get to stay home without major argument. It’s a win-win.
And if you do decide to just go with the religious flow for one night, take heart in knowing that, If nothing else, attending church services have been proven to lower blood pressure — something we could all use over the holidays.
And easy access to an open bar.