There is much fun, love and holiday spirit to be had during the coming weeks if we will be realistic in our expectations, not dwell on ‘the way we wish it could be’ and take some steps early on to ‘reframe’ our gatherings.
Adjust the following to fit you own situation so that you can enjoy the holidays and not leave the table with emotional leftovers.
1. Attempt to shorten the length of the get-togethers. Do you not like spending time at family gatherings with people you don’t particularly enjoy or get along with? Picture this family dinner: Everyone arrives at 1 and dinner is at 6. The game is on TV, the voices loud, and as the alcohol flows, the voices and the kids get louder. Dinner is served; the discussion is on politics, sports, or family members who aren’t present. Those who overeat fall asleep; those who drink get so loud they wake up the ones who sleep. And there is always one who wants/needs to be in control and one to whom you must be very careful what you say and how you say it. Sound slightly familiar? We all have someone who ‘acts out’ at family gatherings. If you don’t admit it you either belong to The Waltons or you’re from the 51st state (the state of denial). By shortening the length of time you spend together some of these areas of conflict may be eliminated.
I suggest that you pick a spokesperson, the one who is the most sane, and ask that person to present the idea of shortening the time frame if only as an experiment. Reassure everyone that you will go back to the old way next year if this doesn’t improve things.
2. Find a way to connect more deeply with those you do care about. One of the ways of doing this is by changing the seating from one large table to several small tables. In the smaller settings, the quiet ones will be able to sit next to that distant cousin they would like to know better or that precious grandmother whom they don’t get to see enough of. Meanwhile, those who want to re-fight the World Wars or re-win the World Series can have their own table. In addition, you can extend the connection by setting several conversation areas around the house that are conducive to smaller more intimate talks.
3. Have Allies. Bring someone with you who can act as support when you must deal with really difficult relatives. Sometimes women revert to emotional 12 year olds when dealing with relatives and young men sometimes loose their tempers. It is very helpful to have that ally present who will help us stay grounded in today, encourage us to remember our strength, and remind us it will only last a few hours or days. If you can’t have the physical presence of an ally, then have someone you can phone.
4. Change your definition of Success. In other words reframe your expectations. Don’t expect the egos not to show up, make your intention to focus on the precious souls in the room. Don’t expect the egos not to bother you- success is when you don’t react to the egos. Take a walk or hug a tree. Don’t laugh, you’d be surprised how much strength can come from hugging a tree — try it. Transfer your frustration (the energy) to the tree. The tree can handle it better (and more quietly) than you. Success can be when your children and grandchildren are creating new and lasting memories. Success can be when you set an extremely small goal for the year. Maybe success is only having 3 mishaps rather than 5.
5. Decompress before, during and after each family event. Sometimes our treadmill and roller coaster lives are such that we arrive at a family gathering, already at the breaking point. Take the example of Jake, I ask him to take a couple of days off before he flew out to visit his family and he said, “No way, I can’t take that much time off work.” I ask him how much time he could take before he faced his family and he said a couple of hours. So we agreed he would stop by the gym on his way in from the airport and workout for a couple of hours to release the tension and stress from his work and his flight. We also agreed that he would borrow his brother’s mountain bike and bike every day during his visit. It worked! He said he was able to walk into his family home and actually enjoy the noisy children, his Dad bickering and his Mom complaining and just laugh about his wacky family. Then upon his return Jake allowed himself a day of ‘lazy time’ before he went to back to work.
Remember if you prepare your physical self and your emotional self a little bit, to be healthy, and feel relaxed, it can really change how you relate to and enjoy your family. Your family will still be the same, but you will be different. You will be stronger and more resilient and that will get you through. Most important you chances of creating a wonderful holiday worth remembering will be greatly enhanced.
Adapted from When Difficult Relatives Happen to Good People: Surviving Your Family and Keeping Your Sanity by Leonard Felder, Ph.D Copyright 2003.