by Andrea M. Darcy
Wish you knew how to deal with a family get together without feeling mired in guilt and shame after? For yet again saying or doing all the wrong things? Or being angry at them all for being such letdowns?
How to Prepare for a Family Get Together
Seeing our family might be complicated, but research shows it is good for both ourselves, now adults, and our ageing parents. Another study shows that keeping in touch with our siblings is helpful when it comes to achieving life goals.
So how can you prepare before the next family gathering?
1. Do an expectations inventory.
Sometimes we first need to change our starting point. Which means taking an honest look at our expectations.
Lowering our expectations isn’t about having no standards or being ‘weak’. It’s about being realistic and compassionate. For example, do you really need to use the holidays to bring that family secret out into the open at a holiday gathering?
As for expectations you have of yourself, what sort of unnecessary stress are you putting yourself under?
- Make a list of what you expect from other family members during your next get together. Be honest.
- Now go over the list. If you had to choose only two expectations, what would they be? How would you feel to let the other ones drop? What might be the benefits for you?
- Next, think of your best friend. What are five ways you suggest she enjoy her next family gathering?Are these the same things you are asking of yourself? Or are your criteria suddenly much stricter? Could you consider practising self-compassion by only asking of yourself what you ask of friends?
2. Get out emotions towards family members.
The single best thing you can do to avoid a family blowout is to show up in a good headspace.
- Show up as rested as possible, for starters (hangover not advisable).
- Agree with your partner to be a team when you arrive.
- Work emotional preparation time into your getting ready routine, as per below.
- Paper, pen, free journalling. This means telling your unconscious you’ll rip up the paper after then letting yourself say to the page all the things that come up, no matter how harsh or silly. Feel free to also pen letters to any family member you have issues with, telling them all the things you’d love to say but never have. Then do rip up the pages, which in itself can feel good.
- Try a 20-minute mindfulness meditation the day of the reunion can also do wonders. Or a quick mindfulness break in the backyard during the event if you need a reset.
- Or use the technique you know leaves you feeling most calm and centred. If that is exercise, like having a go at a punching bag, then workout before you leave for the gathering. If it’s chatting to a support buddy, get it scheduled in the calendar.
3. Choose a boundary.
Saying yes when we want to say no is usually followed by giving off a resentful energy that others feel. Which then often leads to a fight being picked. For example, you don’t want to talk about something, but when the other family member says they want to talk about it, you say okay. Then you go quiet and sullen, and they get angry.
- It’s unrealistic to expect yourself to have good boundaries if you never have had them with family. But take time now to decide what one boundary you’d like to set this year around family.
- Write down how you’ll respond when a challenging moment comes up, and practise in advance all the responses you might use. Read our article on “How to Say No” for advice. If you have a friend or partner to help, you can also use role play.
- How will you feel after setting this boundary?
At the family get together – what now?
Once you are at the family get together, how can you handle things so that fights are less likely to break out? Or people stop picking on you?
1. Be present.
People start arguments because they sense the other person isn’t present, and it’s their way of demanding attention.
If you childhood was traumatic, you might not even realise how non-present and dissociated you are at family gatherings. Pay attention this year. Is your mind on other things, or the family activity at hand?
- If you find yourself drifting off, use a bit of body mindfulness to shortcut your way to being present. Put your attention on your feet, thinking about the way they connect to the ground, maybe shifting them around a bit, or clench and release your hands a few times. You can also focus on your breathing for a few minutes, noticing the air coming in and out.
- If you are talking to someone, focus on one thing you like about them to keep you present, even if it’s just the colour of their sweater.
2. Listen and claim your thoughts and feelings.
One of the easiest ways to upset others without realising is to not properly listen. This leaves others feeling invalidated.
Good listening means putting your full attention on what the other is saying, not thinking about a million other things. Then reflecting back or asking questions to be sure you understood correctly. It means not always competing with your own similar story and leaving a pause before you respond. There isn’t a rush.
When you do communicate, be wary of sentences that start with ‘you’. ‘You this’, ‘you that’, ‘you said’… these all sound like blame. Instead, always start with ‘I’. “I felt judged when you said I looked tired” is less aggressive than “When you said I was tired, I felt judged.”
3. Hold ice cubes. Seriously.
If you really feel like you are going to blow, use yet a tip from dialectical behavioural therapy and hold ice in your hand. (Wrapped in a serviette or towel so you don’t damage your skin, evidently).
This technique is used to lower distress in those with borderline personality disorder or who self-harm. The idea is that the shock of it distracts you enough that you can begin to calm down.
And remember, you are at a family dinner, not in jail. If you are feeling triggered, take a step back. Step outside for a breath of fresh air, go hide in the spare room for a moment, offer to take the dog for a walk.
And if it all goes wrong at the family get together?
You are not responsible for all the dynamics in your family, nor can you control what others think or do.
You’ve done your best, and all is not lost. Choose one new thing you’ve learned from the experience of trying out new ways of being around your family. How can you apply what you’ve learned elsewhere in your life?
Feel overwhelmed by family dynamics? Reach out for support now so when that next holiday family gathering arrives you are in a new headspace. Harley Therapy now connects you with experienced, registered therapists across the UK, and via online if you live elsewhere.
Still have a question about how to get along with family? Or want to share an experience with other readers? Use our public comment box below.
Andrea M. Darcy is the lead writer of this site. She herself comes from a highly dysfunctional family, and may or may not have tried all these techniques herself. Find her on Twitter.