My own personal experience coupled with my professional experience working with families for nearly 20 years, I’ve learned a few helpful strategies for navigating those occasional stressful situations that come whenever families gather.
It’s not your job to make everyone happy
Even though ideal holiday celebrations are associated with happiness, remember that it’s not your job to make everyone happy. Someone will inevitably be disappointed because they didn’t get a gift they were hoping for or because you spent more time with your partner’s family than with them. I worked with a woman in my clinical practice who worked so hard to make sure that everyone was delighted with the holiday gifts and family celebrations that she ended up exacerbating her existing physical health problems and had to spend most of the holiday in bed. We worked together to help her let others have the “privilege” of learning how to deal with disappointment and upset.
Start a different tradition
One of the beauties of being an adult is that you get to choose what you want to do. Family traditions are meant to promote family bonding, not family “bondage.” If you are feeling like you don’t have a choice in how you celebrate the holidays, it may be time to start a tradition of your own and opt out of another tradition.
It’s particularly difficult when there are strong extended family ties to break away and start your own traditions. I know of a family who decided to try leaving town to spend Christmas with an extended family member in another state. This helped establish them as “grown-ups” and sent a clear message that they are going to select which extended family traditions they will participate in.
Act like a grownup, even when you don’t feel like one
Have you ever noticed how family gatherings have a tendency to bring out old patterns and roles? A 50-year-old man can magically transform back into that older teenage brother who used to tease you mercilessly. Or that little sister can shift from a respected adult into a spoiled little girl. If old family patterns resurface, leaving you feeling like (or acting like) a child, remind yourself that you can choose not to revert back to playing your childhood role.
I worked with a man who had taken on the role of “the responsible child” early on in his life. He grew up worrying about finances and caring for younger siblings needs. As an adult, his family continued to look to him to host and foot the bill for parties, gifts, and travel expenses for family gatherings. We worked together to help him step out of his childhood role by allowing his family of origin (now all adults) to make their own travel arrangements, participate in planning and bring food to family gatherings.
Assume that others have good intentions
Even if you are well prepared to handle family drama; it may sneak up on you without warning. An offhanded comment about your parenting skills (or lack thereof) or a sister-in-law forgetting to buy a gift for your family may catch you off guard.
To fend off potential drama, I’ve found it helpful to make up a story in my mind that makes another person’s potentially hurtful behavior make sense. Thinking, “Oh, I know she’s had a difficult time caring for a sick mom” helps me to not take offense and get sucked into family drama. Assuming others’ missteps are underscored by good intentions will help you have a happier holiday.
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