I previously blogged about savoring Thanksgiving and, in particular, the enjoyment that comes from spending quality time with friends and family. Much of our happiness in life is nested within our relationships. Basically, this means when we have strong positive connections, we tend to be happy, and when we have conflictual relationships or feel disconnected, we tend to feel unhappy. Unfortunately for far too many, holidays put us right in the middle very stressful family relationships. This reminds me of a quote from spiritual teacher Ram Dass who once said, “If you think you are so enlightened, go spend a week with your parents.”
Holiday gatherings for some of us tap old nerves and push us to our very limits. What are some ways of reducing holiday stress from relationship difficulties?
Here are a few strategies that might just help you survive these stressful holiday gatherings:
- Plan a Time-Limited Visit – This is goes with the “ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” adage. When you know you won’t be able to stay too long with relatives before our composure starts to crack, then plan to stay fewer days. For example, if you know that you can only stay with the in-laws about 2 days before it things get ugly, then just plan on that. Don’t set yourself up for failure – set yourself up for a successful visit by limiting the length of time that you are together.
- Plan an Exit Strategy – Related to the above strategy, have other plans and inform the relatives in question why you can only stay a couple of days. For example, perhaps there are some other relatives or friends who want you to come visit as well – it’s important that you take the opportunity to see THEM! Informing the relatives with whom you have difficulties ahead of time will be more acceptable than just abruptly leaving after a short visit.
- Stay With Safe Topics – It’s often said that we should avoid religion in politics in polite conversations. Debating such topics is often pointless to begin with – it seldom changes people’s perspectives and often leads to heated arguments that leave both parties fuming and unhappy. Staying with safe topics is particularly important during holiday visits when you already have strained relationships.
- Avoid Hot-Button Issues – Related to the above, avoid opening up old wounds during these visits, like why your mother showed up drunk during your high school graduation…20 years ago. There’s a time and place for everything and, if we want to make it through the holidays intact when dealing with difficult relationships, holiday visits are not the best time to revisit past hurts.
- Have a Wingman – Enlist the aid of your significant other or a trusted relative to help you make it through the visit. Perhaps prepare a code word or signal with your “wingman” to let you know if things are getting out of hand. For instance, if you “accidentally” start to extoll the virtues of the Affordable Care Act to your uncle who hates Obamacare, your “wingman” could give you the predetermined signal so that you know to change the topic.
- Take Some Breaks – If you can only tolerate being around certain folks for short periods of time, be sure to take some breaks. Perhaps go for a walk, help prepare food or clean dishes, interact with a different relative, or run a quick errand. Such breaks can allow you time to recharge your batteries and “get your game face” back on.
- Monitor Yourself – Be mindful of the signs that your getting agitated such as a loud voice, fast heart beat, or a tightness in your chest. If you can learn to catch these feelings, you can use them as reminders that you need a break. Talk to your “wingman” (or woman!) as well. He or she might be able to help recognize these signs that you are getting agitated.
- Avoid Drinking Too Much – Alcohol is known for lowering inhibitions, and these inhibitions are exactly what you need to have in place when dealing with difficult relationships. If you know that you have trouble moderating your alcoholic intake, it might be best to avoid alcohol altogether. You need to bring your “A-game” to these holiday gatherings. Alcohol is frequently a part of domestic quarrels, so you want to avoid one of the known pitfalls of alcohol consumption.
Connecting with relatives is what makes holidays special for so many people, but challenging relationships make holidays very stressful for many others. If meeting with relatives over the holidays is particularly stressful or painful to you, having some tools in your toolkit can hopefully make it a bit easier. Not that these strategies can turn negative relationships into positive ones through some sort of Christmas magic, but perhaps they can make THIS sleigh ride a little less bumpy.