There are dozens of holidays between now and January. Here’s how to survive all that family time

Not always a happy family.
Not always a happy family.
Image: AP Photo/Alastair Grant
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It’s the holiday season, time for family gatherings, happiness, and good cheer. It’s also the time for your smiling brother to sit across from you at the dinner table and comment on on how your favorite politician is corrupt and anyone who supports him is delusional.

At least 29 religious holidays will be celebrated across the world between November 1 and January 15. These holidays are fertile ground for clashes between conservative views and secular, agnostic, or more liberal perspectives. Many people struggle with these situations at the best of times, but in today’s polarized political and social environment, the holidays can be particularly difficult. This is amplified by the fact that holidays are full of expectations for closeness and reconnection.

As a psychologist, I have seen first-hand how these forces foster discomfort, if not outright avoidance of family get togethers. Even at the best of times, people experience strong emotions around the holidays, struggle with relationships, and behave in ways that are not necessarily in their long-term social interests. It may be impossible to make the holidays completely conflict-free, but we can use the principles of personality theory to understand the roots of that conflict, and develop healthy ways to deal with it.

Attachment theory, which is a psychological theory that I research and write on as a professor of clinical psychology, describes our various views of the world, which are rooted in life experiences and embedded in each of our personalities. The resultant ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving can be very difficult for those with different styles and beliefs to understand. And those views are unlikely to be changed or made more tolerable by a strong academic, political, or religious argument. In other words, we aren’t going to eliminate the conflict, but we can certainly manage it, and try enjoy each other anyway.

Stephen Robbins’ model of conflict management can be particularly useful here. It involves five stages in which conflict can play out: starting with antecedent conditions, then perceiving and feeling the conflict, followed by the formation of intentions on how to deal with that conflict, the conflict becoming overt or expressed, and finally, the outcome of that conflict, which can either result in closer relationships or damage, hurt, and alienation.

Recognize the conditions

In my consulting and family therapy work I focus on letting conflict emerge so that it can be used to foster positive outcomes. This can work effectively when there is a mechanism to contain the conflict. That mechanism isn’t usually present at holiday gatherings, so our energy is better spent on addressing the first three stages of the model.

During the holidays, the antecedent conditions are often related to religion and politics. We can take steps to keep disagreements from being perceived or felt. In this respect, my first recommendation is to avoid bringing up strong religious or political views that might trigger your fellow party goers.

Putting aside your differences does not mean first putting them out on the table. Don’t even unpack them. Think about it this way: if you didn’t know the other person’s views, you might actually enjoy their company. So, just for the day, give them a pass and put your differences out of your mind.

Secondly, take a little time and think about the other antecedent conditions in your friendship or family circles. Is there a large income discrepancy between you and a family member? You might live modestly and be going over to a more opulent home for dinner. You might live in that opulent home and have guests who could be intimidated or feel “less than” because of it. Remember, it doesn’t matter if that is the other person’s “issue.” Just remember that it could be an antecedent condition that increases the likelihood of conflict.

Similarly, do you have that judgmental relative who comments on your clothes, home décor, or even dish towels?  Prepare for how you want to address those antecedent conditions once they arise. In other words, look at the second and third stage of our conflict model where the conflict is perceived and people form ideas about how they are going to deal with it.

Know your blind spots

People are perceptive of social cues, conflict, and other people’s emotions to the degree that their personalities will let them. About a third of the population is highly reactive to these cues and more likely to perceive conflict. So, know yourself and know your blind spots. Just because you don’t perceive a conflict, doesn’t mean that others don’t. This knowledge should also help you avoid being surprised by others reactions.

Work on developing and rehearsing some of your responses in advance.  If someone makes a snide comment on your dish towels, for example, you could say, “I’ll take that as a compliment.” If someone comments on politics, you could say, “It sure is an interesting time in our country.”

It’s key to try not to counter attack. Rather, redirect to another subject, use mild humor, pretend you didn’t hear the comment, or mirror back to the other person what they said (in a neutral tone) so that they can hear themselves.

Being prepared in advance can minimize the emotional impact of conflict. Once you are emotionally activated, it may be difficult to keep your thoughts and behaviors in line. In these kinds of situations, we can use the principles of cognitive behavioral therapy to help.

Take responsibility for your thoughts

You can choose how and what you think. Decide in advance of the holiday gathering that you are going to try not to entertain negative, painful, or hostile thoughts during the holiday. Don’t expect to think one way and feel another. If you are worried about being rejected by your family members, feel inferior to them, or believe that a particular relative with extreme political views is crazy and needs to be set straight, don’t expect to feel anything but sad, anxious, or angry.

If you know that you are prone to strong negative emotions, work on ways to ignore them. Your emotions are not wrong because you are indeed feeling them. The question should be, are they useful and will they enable you to think and behave in a way that works for you at the family party? Remember, your negative emotions are just your body’s way of telling you that something is wrong, and you should take steps to protect yourself. Anxiety, for example is your body’s way of warning you that there is danger in your environment and you should be on guard. Anger and fear prepare you to attack or run to escape an attacker. But there usually is no real danger at the family gathering and if you take steps to protect yourself, you may make things worse.

If you behave in a more calm, non-defensive manner, your emotions and thoughts may follow. Practice enacting kind behaviors. If someone annoys you, try smiling and opening the door for that person, offer to help out, or just listen.

Try to be the person who is giving. The result may leave you thinking less about what you are or aren’t getting from others.