Family gatherings are often thought of as times to talk, laugh, reconnect and reminisce. For others, however, these dinners or parties are dreaded and, if possible, avoided. As a psychologist, this matter peaks around the holidays, when some clients feel it is a good time to break from therapy and others double up on their sessions. For those who cringe at the idea of spending time with your warring family, oversharing uncle, judgmental parents, bully of a sister-in-law, or whatever other version of dysfunction that makes gatherings a strain, here are some tips to help get you through them relatively unscathed.
Before the event, consider which topics you’re comfortable taking about and which are off limits. How might you respond to unwelcome or prying questions? I suggest you keep responses to these questions concise (“that’s not something I want to talk about”), and don’t feel obligated to provide an explanation. When we are caught off guard, we are more likely to overshare, find ourselves talking about something we wish we weren’t, or being overly harsh in our rebukes. A little bit of planning can go a long way in preparing you to respond effectively.
When we have differences of opinions from family members, it can be difficult to hold ourselves back from getting into old debates. This is especially the case when those opinions are extreme or relate to sensitive topics like politics. Before engaging in a verbal sparring match, consider what your goal is and whether you’re likely to be heard. When you don’t think arguing will help you meet your goals (e.g., if you know someone is not going to change their opinion, or you want to prioritize keeping the peace), it is likely better to back off. Think of it as doing what is effective over what might be justified.
Mindfulness is all the rage today, and for good reason. Among other benefits, building skill in mindfulness has been shown to help with stress reduction. If you already cultivate a mindfulness practice, try to apply those skills during the event. If you’re not too familiar with mindfulness, consider trying some guided meditations in the days leading up to the event (e.g. using the Headspace app). This won’t necessarily make the event more pleasant, but it may help you stay rooted in the present rather than getting lost in past frustrations, conflicts or old wounds.
Faced with yet another stressful family event, you might be tempted to drink to take the edge off. While this might feel like it provides some relief, it also puts you at higher risk for crossing boundaries, saying things you don’t mean, and having trouble managing your emotions. If you feel that drinking might be the only way to get through the event, it might be time to leave.
If you’ve decided to go to a family event despite your expectations that it will be unpleasant, you likely feel that there are benefits to attending. You might feel obligated to be there or know that not going will cause you even more headaches later. That being said, there does come a point where leaving is the best choice. If you feel that things are about to turn sour, that you’re going to lose control, or that staying will cause you undue stress, there is no shame in walking out the door.
In the end, even with the best use of these and other strategies, family gatherings might remain unpleasant and intolerable. Just know that you are not alone, and make an effort before or after to spend time with people you truly do feel connected to.