by Andrea M. Darcy
What is it about a family gathering that reduces so many of us to behaviours we’ve long left behind in the rest of our life? And leaves us feeling unbearably annoyed? Or swearing off ever attending one again?
Why are family gatherings so hard?
The problem is often one of habit. Even though we’ve long grown up and had families of our own, our parents, siblings, and extended families can still cast us in the roles we played when young. Even as we might unknowingly do the same to them.
Then there is the issue of group dynamics. We all act one way around one person, and another around a group, as more energy is added and power structures can surface. So even if we get along with our family members one-on-one, a mass gathering can present a totally different challenge.
And of course there is the power of a shared history and old conflicts. Like it or not, our unconscious keeps a record of our experiences. If we haven’t sorted out our issues such as through working with a therapist, we can find ourselves overreacting in the present because of repressed emotions wanting to find a way out.
How to Stay Sane at Family Gatherings
So with all this at play, how on earth can one stay sane when it comes to family dinners and reunions?
1. Show up neutral.
If there are any lingering disagreements between you and your family members and you show up “charged”? With either anxiety, anger, or righteousness? It is like setting yourself up to have a difficult time.
The more neutral you can arrive the better. And this doesn’t necessarily mean you have to try to solve difficult issues and disagreements in advance. It’s more a question of defusing the charge.
For example, if your mother has criticised your parenting skills, and you are upset? A quick phone call to agree to disagree and not air it at the gathering can mean you show up not worried you’ll go off.
If this simply isn’t possible, as it’s a long running feud you’re coping with, then maybe it’s time to set some boundaries. Can you agree to show up for different parts of the party so the other person has left before you arrive?
If the other family member is sure to refuse any request or contact, and you feel you still must attend? Then do your best to take care of your state of mind before hand while leaving them to theirs. This could be writing a long letter saying all you’ve ever wanted to say then ripping it up, journalling daily in the week leading up to the event, or practicing mindfulness in the car before going in to the party. Or even reaching out for support from a counsellor in advance.
2. Don’t create triangles.
“Triangles” in group dynamics refer to what happens when two people disagree, and one person pulls a third bystander into the situation. It can be such an inbuilt habit in families it can be mistaken as innocuous. Does it really matter if your sister’s son rather greedily took the last serving of turkey without asking, you voice disapproval, your sister gets defensive, and then you pull your brother in to agree with you?
It does, because triangles are the base structures that family feuds are built on. They create an ‘us against them’ energy that snowballs.
There is nothing wrong with disagreeing with someone in your family. But disagree by yourself. Don’t pull anyone else in, not even your spouse if you can help it.
And if you are the sort who always relies on pulling others in when it comes to getting your point across? Consider learning stronger and cleaner ways of communicating and working out conflict.
3. Lower your expectations.
If you show up at each family gathering with a list of demands in your head? Such as thinking it’s about time people listened to your properly, or acknowledged your latest accomplishments? You are going to be riled up before you even arrive and might spend the entire time feeling hard done by.
The less you expect from a family gathering, the more likely you are to enjoy yourself. What if you decided to expect nothing at all beyond your Mother’s good cooking? What if you decided to let everyone be their very worst and not worry about it? How much better might you feel at the end of the day? Don’t see it as not caring, see it as taking care of yourself emotionally.
4. Stop judging yourself.
One of the people you might have very high expectations of at family gatherings is yourself. It’s very easy to come away from a family gathering beating yourself up for falling for your dad’s teasing and snapping at him as usual. Or eating more than you wanted to because your mother pressured you and you yet again couldn’t say no.
It’s not that family gatherings can’t be the place to try out new behaviours. But be reasonable. If you do decide to stand your ground on something, stick to one thing only and promise yourself not to be upset if it doesn’t work. And make things easier on yourself by making sure you have support, such as a friend who is standby for you to call.
5. Stick to one time zone.
The problem with families is that we all go way, way back. And this means we can spend every family gathering noticing what our family members do wrong ‘just like always’. And remembering ways they hurt us years ago, or hoping that ‘one day’ they are nicer/calmer/better. It’s hard to enjoy ourselves or feel good if we aren’t even available to what is going on in the present moment but are totally caught up in a past we can’t change and a future we can’t control.
Mindfulness, a tool now used by many therapists to help clients be more in touch with how they feel and find greater joy in day to day life, provides good tips for how to be more aware of the present moment at your family gathering. You can, for example, pay attention to your breath every time you feel your mind wondering or your emotions rising. Or even set your watch to beep quickly on every hour at which point you can check in- am I noticing the things in front of me, the colours, smells, sensations of this moment?
Another tip can be to wear something that acts as a trigger to remind you to stay in the moment every time you look at it, like a cocktail ring or string around your wrist.
If you do feel yourself getting upset, ask yourself, if I forget what came before, what exactly is happening right now in this instant that is making me feel bad? If I didn’t know this person, if they weren’t family but, say, a colleague, would I be this upset? Is there any chance I’m attaching past emotions that I can choose to let go of, just for today?
This is not to say you should ignore real issues and past trauma. Such things do need to be dealt with. But…
6. Save it for Later.
Family gathering are rarely the place to sort out all of your issues for once and for all.
Ask yourself, is this issue crucial to talk about right now, or can it wait until tomorrow or next week? When I can talk to this person alone? You might find that when tomorrow comes what seemed so important surrounded by the group energy of your family is suddenly not as important as you thought.
As for old, deep traumas, it’s advisable to work them through with the support of a professional first. Trying to take someone to task when you are still very upset about the issue can lead to them denying their part. Which is traumatic in and of itself. And attempting this at a family gathering can mean you force others to take sides without having a chance to know the full story. This can leave you hurt or without the support of those you love.
7. When in doubt, use your ears.
Listening is perhaps the most underrated way to improve relationships, avoid overreacting, and navigate conflict. Perhaps it’s so overlooked as so few people know how to truly listen. Listening is not looking at someone and nodding your head while you think about a million other things, or plan what you’ll say in response. It’s being fully present to what someone is saying, and at the most merely reflecting back what they say so they know you’ve heard.
And if you are the upset person, listening can stop you from getting things wrong. Family members are probably the very people on this earth who can most cause us to overreact, so this can be a challenge. Use the rule of three. Have them repeat what they are saying three times before you respond, and ask for a clearer definition each time, repeating back what you think you are hearing. You’d be amazed how many times you actually have heard something different.
And try replacing advice with listening. One of the things most guaranteed to upset others is unasked for advice. With family, we know them quite well, so it can be easy to see where they are going wrong and incredibly tempting to tell them so. But do you need the reaction that is bound to result given that family gatherings are stressful enough as is?
The best truth to take to a family gathering
The one truth it’s perhaps easiest to forget around family? Is that the only person you can be responsible for and change is yourself.
Try your best not to worry about the way other family members are acting or thinking, or to consider how you wish they would act or feel. Put the focus on you, and how you can act. So that you feel good about yourself and maybe, just maybe, even end up leaving a family gathering for once able to say you actually had a good time.
Photos by National Library of Ireland, Sarah Witherby, Chris Potter, and Pete.
A popular mental health writer with counselling training, Andrea M. Darcy‘s main tactic for surviving family gatherings intact was to move continents so you can never actually attend them. Note she does not advise others to necessarily follow suit. Find her on Instagram @am_darcy