Out of all the relationships we have in our lives, the ones we share with family members can be the most challenging. And there's nothing like holiday stress to trigger the old wounds and unresolved issues that plague so many families.
Sharing close, loving, and supportive relationships is a basic human need, yet many of our family relationships fall short of this ideal. Most families have some level of dysfunction, with each member playing his or her part. Becoming aware of your own family dynamics--and consciously changing behavior patterns that create conflict--will help you avoid the interpersonal "land mines" that are often triggered in the midst of holiday stress. Below are some practical tips to help you make the holidays a time of joyful celebration, instead of fodder for unpleasant family feuds.
1. Know your limits. While some people can enjoy hours, days, or weeks of extended family get-togethers, others' tolerance may only be a couple of hours. Do an honest assessment of the length of time you can comfortably spend with your family without feeling resentful, overwhelmed, or getting hooked into old, unhealthy dynamics--then stick to that length of time. If you have family relations that are difficult or painful, it may be better to keep the visit brief.
2. Practice emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence means exercising self-discipline in the middle of an emotional reaction to make a conscious decision about what kind of action you want to take. Family members can invoke your deepest wounds. If someone says something hurtful, instead of reacting in a way that escalates conflict, you can say, "It may not have been you're intention, but I found what you said hurtful. I'd like us to enjoy our time together, so let's focus on making it a peaceful and pleasant day."
3. Hold a loving focus. If you start to feel judgmental, angry, or upset, ask yourself, "What kind of inner state do I want to have? Do I want to have a junkyard inside of me--full of anger, sadness, and frustration--or do I want to have a beautiful garden inside--full of love, peace, and joy?" Choosing to stay loving, no matter what, can make the difference between having a pleasant family holiday, or one that depletes, saddens, or angers you.
4. Avoid provocative topics. Holidays are usually not the best time to rehash old wounds or resolve on-going issues. Keep things light and cordial, and defer discussion of potentially contentious topics to another time. Family events often invoke a myriad of complex human emotions--which can be intensified by holiday stress or under the influence of alcohol.
5. Keep expectations realistic. One way we set ourselves up for feelings of disappointment and anger is by having unrealistic expectations of others. Instead of imposing expectations onto family members, accept them for who they are. Remind yourself that everyone is doing the best they can, and that we all have flaws and limitations. This will help to preserve your relationships, and keep you from running expectations that can't be met.
6. Avoid "shoulding" people. Telling your sibling, parent, or child what they "should" or "shouldn't" do can provoke defensive reactions. Share your own thoughts without running the assumption that you know what's best for the other person. Even if your insight can be helpful, "shoulding" on people usually creates resistance.
Lauren Mackler is the author of the international bestseller, Solemate: Master the Art of Aloneness & Transform Your Life. She is a psychotherapist, life and relationship coach, and host of the weekly Life Keys radio show on www.hayhouseradio.com. You can follow her on Twitter, watch her videos on YouTube, become a fan on Facebook, and read her Live Boldly blog You can contact her through her web site at www.laurenmackler.com.