How to Get Along With Your Family Over the Holidays

Do you tell yourself every year that this is the holiday season when you will be the picture of calm, cool and collected at the family gathering?

Only to find yourself mired in guilt and shame come Boxing Day, for yet again saying or doing all the wrong things the day before?

Read our advice for how to get along with your family and have a less stressful season. 

HOW TO GET ALONG WITH YOUR FAMILY AT HOLIDAY GATHERINGS 

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1. Do an expectations inventory.  

We often think we have no expectations of ourselves and others – when really we are mired in them.

Recognising and reigning in our expectations of both others and ourselves is one of the easiest ways to lower the stress and tension around the holidays. And it isn’t about lowering standards or being ‘weak’. It’s about being realistic and compassionate. 

Do you really need to use the holidays to bring that family secret out into the open, or demand that debt be payed back? And is it really helpful to expect yourself to be perfectly behaved, not overeat, and not show a single emotion? What sort of unnecessary stress are you putting yourself under?

ACTION STEP:

Make a list of what you expect from others during the holiday get together. Be honest. Nobody else has to see it, and you can rip it up after. 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, come up with five ways you’d suggest your best friend enjoy her family Christmas. Are these the same things you are asking of yourself? Or are your criteria suddenly much stricter? Could you consider practising self-compassion by letting yourself follow the first set of guidelines? 

2. Get it out in advance.

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 and try not pick fights in the week leading up to Christmas. Then carve out some time to prepare yourself. Yes, it might mean cancelling a night out, but it can save you weeks of family war.

ACTION TIP:

Paper, pen, free journalling. This means telling your unconscious you’ll rip up whatever comes out then letting yourself go as wild as you want. 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. When you feel you’ve gotten it all out, really do rip up the pages, which in itself can feel good.

A 20-minute mindfulness meditation the day of can also do wonders. Or use the technique you know leaves you feeling most calm and centred. If that is half an hour in the morning with the punchbag, then so be it. 

3. Set boundaries.

Saying no to things we don’t want to do or talk about is easy for some people, but for others it causes very real anxiety and worry. Our default setting is to say yes without even considering what we truly want.

Saying yes when we want to say no is usually followed by giving off a resentful energy that others feel, and it often leads to a fight being picked, even as you innocently claim you did nothing.

If we have this codependent approach, it will come from childhood, which means that the second we set foot in a room full of our family members our need to please will rev into high gear.

ACTION STEP:

It’s unrealistic to expect yourself to have good boundaries if you never have 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 the 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? 

4. Be present.

We spend ages worrying about how presents are wrapped, or if we bought the right present in the first place.  But what others really want is presence.

People start arguments because they sense the other person isn’t present, and it’s their way of demanding attention. If your family members are always picking on you, be honest if this might be why.

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 what is being said to you? Are you noticing the environment, or drifting off?

ACTION TIP:

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 when you feel yourself drifting off. 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. 

5. Listen first and speak with “I”. 

One of the easiest ways to upset others without realising is to not listen. This leaves others feeling invalidated. Note that listening is not just looking at someone while you think of a million other things. 

When you do talk, make sure to avoid sentences that start with “you”. ‘You this’, ‘you that’, ‘you said’… they all sound like blame and trigger other people’s insecurities.

ACTION STEP:

Read our piece on “Good Listening“. It will help you see how the way you listen might not be listening at all, and how to upgrade your capacity to hear others.  Then read our piece on “Communicating Under Stress.” 

6. When in doubt, step back. 

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.

ACTION STEP:

Take a tip from dialectical behavioural therapy groups and practise training your brain to ‘step back’ in advance of the party. Have a friend or partner stand in, telling you all the things your family says that trigger you. Breath deeply, stay as calm as you can for as long as you can bear it, then literally step backwards. If you need to, take two or more steps.

7. Hold ice cubes. Seriously.

If you really feel like you are going to blow, use yet another tip from dialectical behavioural therapy and hold ice in your hand, wrapped in a serviette or towel so you don’t damage your skin.

A technique 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 if ice cubes is what it takes to avoid a blowout, then so be it.

ACTION TIP:

Make sure there is ice in the freezer and if not, fill the ice cube trays!

And if it all goes wrong…

Make this the year you don’t beat yourself up or blame yourself if a fight does happen. 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 else can you apply what you’ve learned elsewhere in your life?

Do you feel overwhelmed by family dynamics? Reach out for support now so that next Christmas you are in a new headspace. Harley Therapy now connects you with experienced, registered therapists across the UK, and via Skype 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.  

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