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Five Traps to Avoid During Holiday Family Get-Togethers

We love our families, but watch out for toxic reactions.

The holidays are a wild and wonderful time of year. Joyful, full of community, and sometimes a bit unhinged. We’re often more social (sometimes there’s even too much pressure to be social) as the year draws to a close, we look back on the last year, and reflect on our hopes and dreams for the future, and for the next year in particular. Especially in times of political turmoil and uncertainty, New Year’s brings up a lot. From an evolutionary perspective, winter is a time of hibernation (for those of us in the Northern hemisphere). We may slow down, eat more, sleep more, and generally want to hole up somewhere warm and ride it out. After all, in the past, winter was a time of potential disaster if we ran out of food or shelter failed to provide heat, leading to famine, death and disease. Winter makes us band together for survival, enhancing the need to watch out for one another. Maybe that’s why people are friendlier during the holidays, and why these days are holy days in the first place, the end of the year having become sacred over the evolution of humankind.

Such musings aside, we gather together over the holidays with family and friends, and share community and cheer, sustenance both corporeal and intangible. Some of us shy away from family, others wish they were with their families but cannot be, some of us have uncomplicated family experiences, and others ambivalently meet up with their families under tense circumstances. We can do a lot to manage these situations for greater mutual satisfaction (or self-protection, if that is all that’s possible or wanted) by limiting exposure, setting boundaries and having a plan B if things aren’t going well, and by learning to cope more effectively when under strain. We have to decide whether to address family issues, and really is a holiday gathering always the best time? After a bit too much egg-nog, spirits are high and people tend to say more than they might otherwise, complicating the situation.

When there is a level of family dysfunction and a history of poor coping, watch out for the following avoidable traps, and use to your advantage your ability to draw strength from uncertainty:

  1. Fishing: Don’t take the bait. When mom starts up again about how you never appreciated her, or didn’t go into the right career, or dated that person when she told you shouldn’t, you get triggered. Watch mindfully, name what is happening, and let it move on. After all, you would regret getting into a big fight and having another family gathering ruined. If that doesn’t work, you can go to another room. If she follows you and keeps going, you may need to try something else. But, don’t take the bait.
  2. The Disappearing Act: You’re looking forward to seeing your sister, who you don’t get to spend enough time with, and hope and expect to share intimate time together. You didn’t always get along but you have been close. But… she’s gone. Maybe she doesn’t show up, or if she shows up, she doesn’t engage. Maybe she brings a friend and they have a great time and shut you out. Don’t get caught up in that. Re-orient yourself to who else is there, and spend quality time with them. You can come back to your sister another time.
  3. Disappointment: You’ve really want to talk with your brother about how he mistreated you when you were kids, but he always blows you off. So, with a touch of desperation because he won’t return your calls or texts, you have to at least try to talk with him when you get together, and you can’t tell him about it ahead of time. When you try to talk with him about it, he gets annoyed and argumentative, leaving you with a sinking feeling. Don’t keep arguing. Say something non-confrontational about what’s happening, express a desire to communicate better, apologize, and move to the next subject, or take a break.
  4. Hitting Below the Belt: Injustice is a powerful motivator, especially in families where things haven’t always been fair, or worse. You go to talk with Dad and he makes a demeaning crack about you, maybe disparaging your profession or choice of life partner. He gets real mean, especially after he gets a few in him. It’s easy to feel belittled, and of course you’d be justified in feeling righteous indignation, but don’t do it. If you really feel secure about yourself, it can hurt, but shouldn’t throw you off for too long. If it isn’t acceptable, you may have to set boundaries before the next family gathering, including skipping it if it isn’t right.
  5. Pretending Everything Is OK: Something is waaay off, beyond the pale. There may be serious family history which has never been acknowledged, but is now on everyone’s mind because of current events (e.g. #MeToo) or a popular movie or TV show. Or maybe something egregious happened recently, and no one knows how to deal with it. The family isn’t in the habit of communicating about difficult issues, and so doesn’t respond well or plan for what could come up when they get together. You can’t always even tell if they are thinking about it the way you are, or if they forget or something. So everyone by default acts “normal”. But it feels awful, and there doesn’t seem to be anything to do about it because it is a powder keg. If anyone bursts the bubble, it feels like the whole thing could suddenly transform into a horror show. Good to have a relief strategy, or even an escape plan. Address such issues, if you wish, in a time, place and manner of your own choosing as self-efficacy, rather than helplessness, will serve us here.

So enjoy the holidays! And do what you can reasonably do to ensure a positive experience, including a helping of generosity and compassion, without letting people walk over you. If you plan to address serious issues, make sure everyone is on the same page. If not, it is best to defer such discussions for a future time. Enjoy safely and responsibly. When it comes to challenging family dynamics, appreciate your own role in how things go, because we often have more influence over these matters than we realize.

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Psychiatrist, Psychoanalyst, Entrepreneur, Writer, Speaker, Advocate

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