My memories of holiday gatherings resemble a montage of Christmas Vacation, Home Alone, and A Charlie Brown Christmas: we never failed to concoct a sentimental mix of comedy and caring, drama and dissonance. Somehow togetherness magnified our differences and led to conflict. Over the years, though, I found that awareness of my own part in the mess enabled me to enjoy my relatives and the holiday season more fully. I’ve assembled a toolkit to help you handle the holidays, family style.
In this article, I explain why family problems are so hard to solve, how to gear up for family time, and how to stay cool when you’re together.
Family Systems: Stable, Not Sensible
Family patterns are difficult to change because families are systems. Systems vary in design, but they all share the quality of stability—not in the sense of health and strength but in the sense of mechanical predictability, like an assembly of parts that interact to function as a whole. And while its structure may appear complex or inscrutable to an outsider, everyone within the system knows his/her role and performs it to perfection.
The thing about families is that even when extreme dysfunction, pain, and abuse characterize their system’s “stability,” real change is unthinkable because it would force the family to disrupt their familiar, and thus comfortable, equilibrium. Individual change—positive or negative—is like having a screw loose. The system breaks down and everyone scrambles to “repair” the family to its former working order.
But change is possible and a single person can initiate systemic change. You can start by redefining your family role and “scripts,” or patterns of interaction.
Assembling Your Toolkit
• Approach with an open mind. Try to view everything through fresh eyes, without the filter of past experience. Negative expectations are self-fulfilling prophecies so let go of past resentments—they keep you stuck in your predefined role. Visualize positive interactions and peaceful outcomes. Mentally walk yourself through each step: warm greetings, pleasure at seeing your relations, and affectionate laughter at mealtime. When you catch yourself in a negative thought or prediction, replace it with a positive thought or scenario.
• Rehearse ways to defuse and redirect. If you expect to face pointed questions or criticism, prepare a neutralizing response and repeat it aloud during the weeks leading up to your family visit. For example: “I’m content with my life as it is. I don’t feel the need to date/get married/have kids.” Or “Yes, I have gained weight. I appreciate your concern for my health.” Rehearse your firm but compassionate delivery. Then be ready to change the subject to reinforce that the topic is off-limits.
• Stay out of it. You cannot—ever—change the values or temperament of your parent, in-laws, or your cousin Willie. Sometimes it’s prudent to withhold your opinion or to agree to disagree. You can choose (1) to fight (and feel distress) or (2) to surrender (and feel serenity). I know which one I prefer. Focus on what you can control: your thoughts, your judgments, and your attitude.
Your Peaceful Plan in Action: While You're Together
• Radiate peace. Smile. You will feel happier and more likely to interpret neutral situations as positive. Plus, happiness is contagious. Imagine that your presence will infuse the atmosphere with a refreshing, open-hearted kindness and optimism. Enact the positive outcomes and non-reactive statements you prepared beforehand.
• Practice mindful self-awareness. Monitor your mood. Be aware when your anxiety level begins to rise and intervene right away to soothe yourself. Notice and intercept any angry, avoidant, or passive-aggressive impulses. Just be aware of what pushes your buttons and make a targeted effort to pause, breathe, and figure out what you need to relax.
• Expect some resistance. At first, your composure might confuse and even inflame others because you are stepping outside of your traditional role. Stand your ground with an empathic response such as: “I see that you are upset, but let’s relax and enjoy being together. Let’s talk about this some other time.” Then follow through on that promise.
I hope this helps you prepare for your next family get-together. Bear in mind that while you can enhance your sense of peace and enjoyment, old family patterns are unlikely to change overnight. That's why my next article will tackle how to handle family conflicts when they arise.