For many people the holidays are a joyous time; for others they are a dreaded part of the year. One factor that can make it tough is spending time with difficult relatives. Here are some strategies for keeping family dinners pleasant:
1) Before you walk into the situation, spend a few minutes thinking about how you want to behave. Don't just react in the moment; consider how you want to act. If you've had unpleasant experiences in the past, think about why they were unpleasant and what you could do to change the dynamics of the situation. You may just need to be more careful about getting enough sleep! If you want a peaceful dinner, think about how to contribute to a harmonious atmosphere. In particular...
2) Think about how topics that seem innocuous to you might upset someone else. You may think you're showing a polite interest, but some questions will rub a person the wrong way: "So do you have a boyfriend yet?" "When are you two going to get married/start a family?" "Didn't you give up smoking?" "Can you afford that?" "When are you going to get a real job?" Show an interest with more open-ended questions, like, "What are you up to these days?" or "What's keeping you busy?" Also...
3) Avoid strife. Some families enjoy arguing passionately amongst themselves; however, most don't handle arguments very well. If you know Uncle Bob's views on politics are going to drive you crazy, don't bring it up! And if he brings it up, you don't have to engage. Try to make a joke of it, and say something like, "Let's agree to disagree," "Let's not talk about that, and give the rest of the family something to be thankful for," etc. There is a time and a place for everything.
4) Don't drink much alcohol. It can seem festive and fun to fill up your glass, but it's easy to lose track of how much you're drinking. Alcohol makes some people feel merry, but it also makes some people feel combative, or self-pitying, or lowers their inhibitions in a destructive way. I basically had to give up drinking because alcohol makes me so belligerent.
5) As best you can, play your part in the tradition. For some people, traditions are very, very important; for others, not so much. You may feel irritated by your brother's insistence on having exactly the same food every Thanksgiving, or by your mother's extreme reaction to the possibility that you might not come home for the day. Try to be patient and play your part. In the long run, traditions and rituals tend to help sustain happiness and family bonds. On the other hand...
6) If you're the one who wants everything to be perfect, try to ease up on yourself and everyone else so that you can enjoy the day, whatever happens. Make the best of the situation. Even if the day isn't exactly the way you hoped it would be, try to enjoy what it is.
7) Don't stuff yourself. Research shows that in fact, most people add just one pound during the holidays -- but then they never lose it. You'll have more fun if you're not feeling uncomfortably full and then guilty about having eaten too much. Think about strategies for staying in control of holiday eating; feeling bad about having eaten too much can make you feel irritable and angry, which spills over into your interactions with other people.
8) Find reasons to be grateful. Be thankful that you get to cook, or that you don't have to cook. Be thankful that you get to travel, or that you don't have to travel. Be thankful for your family or your friends. Find something. Studies show that gratitude is a major happiness booster. Also, feeling grateful toward crowds out emotions like resentment and annoyance.
Wait, you might be thinking that these strategies don't tell you how to deal with your difficult relatives -- they tell you how to behave yourself. Well, guess what! You can't do anything to change what your difficult relatives are going to do; you can only change yourself. Also, in many situations, people behave a difficult way in reaction to something else. So you may think your niece flies off the handle without any reason, but she's furious because she thinks you're needling her about her appearance. If you behave differently, she will, too.
Have you found any helpful strategies for dealing with a difficult holiday situation? What more would you add?
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