12/22/2014 04:29 pm ET Updated Feb 21, 2015

This Holiday Season Have Compassion for Relatives Who Drive You Nuts

Holidays traditionally mean family time. If that thought doesn't swell your heart with joyful anticipation, you've probably got some "challenges" with members of your tribe. It happens in all families because we've all got certain kin folk like this:

  • The aunt who complains about every aspect of her journey including the traffic, the staleness of the airplane pretzels, and the single-ply toilet paper in the hotel.
  • The brother-in-law who corners you for 30 minutes to brag about his business dealings before he finally says, "So how are you doing?" But before you can answer he jumps back in with, "Hey! Did I tell you...?!"
  • The niece who can't stop commenting on the dire health hazards of cheese, meat, gluten, chocolate... and everything else you've just piled on your plate.

They irritate the crap out of you, right? And no amount of egg nog makes talking to them easier. But this year, instead of letting anyone vaporize your Happy Ho-Ho, here are three good reasons to stay calm:

  1. When you exchange irritation for compassion, you take better care of yourself emotionally and physically.
  2. When you refuse to let your buttons get pushed, you do your part in making the get-together happier for yourself and everyone else.
  3. All parents are teachers. If you want to teach your kids to be good people who know when and how to use their "company manners," you've gotta show them what that looks like.

Tips for Becoming More Compassionate (During the Holidays and Year-Round):

When a relative does or says something which grates your nerves, simply ask yourself:

  1. What's going on with me right now? Irritation? Embarrassment? Frustration? Boredom? Resentment? Jealousy? Challenge #1: Identify what you're feeling so you can start understanding your reactions and take them off auto-pilot.
  2. Why does this bother me so much? We are hardest on people whose behavior mimics parts of ourselves that we dislike. Which part? Think about it. And while you're pondering, you might find yourself softening toward the equally flawed mortal in front of you.
  3. What's my usual way of responding? How does your knee-jerk response increase your stress levels and the stress of the people closest to you? Thinking clearly about the downside of our usual reactions can encourage us to explore more positive options.
  4. What does that person need? We're usually so busy resenting button-pushers we rarely think of helping them. But if you consider why Aunt Gertrude must rehash every complaint and disappointment, family dynamics can shift. Maybe she just needs someone to acknowledge her troubles. We all need that at times. Maybe the problem isn't what Gertie needs, but her inability to ask for it directly. If you can figure out what she (or anyone) really wants and you can provide some or all of it, you might discover a) Gertie isn't as "irritating" as she used to be, b) you feel more compassion and love towards her, and c) you've freed yourself from a cycle that only made things worse. Win-win-win.
Before heading toward holiday family get-togethers, talk honestly with your tweens and teens about the challenges we all have in expressing our needs. Share with them what you've learned about being part of a family. Tell them that families are forever. Even so, family dynamics can change. With compassion and a willingness to be honest about what you feel and what you need, you can teach your children that healthy people continue growing in positive directions.

Happy holidays, from our family to yours.