Holiday Gatherings (are Stressful)
Family and friend get-togethers are filled with laughter, joy, happiness, and most importantly, love! Everyone has a blast, and no one has their feelings hurt. Everyone just gets along. Right? Wrong.
Holidays and family gatherings are often one of the most stressful and emotionally difficult times for people. Many people seek family counseling just to get through the holidays! We find ourselves wishing that everything will be perfect but realizing that everything is a mess. No matter how hard we try, or how hard we plan, it seems like something always falls apart.
Maybe it’s a cousin who always shows up late and forgets to bring a dish to pass, a drunk relative who becomes belligerent and yells at everyone, or an estranged family member who always has a new date (and no one approves of them). Maybe you have friends who expect you and everyone else to do something while they sit on their butt. Or perhaps your friends or family have unruly children who run all over the house screaming only to be disciplined by even louder screaming parents. Maybe grandma quietly cries to herself while grandpa scorns all the young punks who never had it hard like him. Or maybe you get the holiday joy of experiencing an emotionally driven argument related to politics or religion. Whatever unpleasantry you have found yourself in, it highlights how holidays often fail to live up to our expectations.
I Can Control It (Except When I Can’t)
A fundamental collapse of nearly every gathering-gone-bad is the idea that we can control a given situation, a person, a hot topic argument (like masks, COVID-19, or vaccines), or an outcome. We truly believe that this year will be different because we are better equipped to handle everyone and everything else. We do not necessarily think about it as control, but rather that we have answers for the what ifs. We even plan things ahead of time to proactively prevent a problem! Yet, somehow all of our good intentions fall short. But how?
The problem is that we are only able to control one person, one thought, and one reaction. We can only control ourselves. That’s right! No matter what look you give your partner, your child, a friend, or your spouse, their response is solely up to them. No matter what topics are off the table, you can only control what you choose to talk about even if everyone else is in a full-blown debate. A sibling rivalry may get fired up again, but it is only you who can put out your response. Despite our best efforts, we can only control ourselves.
It is acceptable to set boundaries for yourself. Be your best advocate. If something arises that makes you uncomfortable or contributes to conflict, set a boundary for yourself and excuse yourself. Instead of trying to control everyone else and their reactions, simply leave the situation. It is ok to choose not to participate in an uncomfortable conversation. You may leave for a few minutes or you may choose to leave entirely. Whatever boundary you set, give yourself permission to adhere to it. Set a boundary that says you will not participate in negativity or conflict and leave when it arises.
I Have the Power (to Choose)
You have the power to control yourself, to be your own boss. You get to control what you say to others, good or bad. You get to choose how you react and respond to people no matter how hurtful they may be. You get to accept whatever situation you are presented and to choose how you want to handle it. In a recent interview with Tom Brady, he identifies his ability to be successful as an NFL quarterback, as a husband, and as a father by recognizing what he can control, what he cannot control, and putting forth his best effort into that which he can control. You have that same power. You can focus your energy and your best efforts into yourself by controlling what you say, think, and do. Accept that things that you cannot control and choose to control yourself.
If you have ever heard of the Serenity Prayer you may have heard about the wisdom related to acceptance and control of self. The prayer says “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” You can choose to accept the things you cannot change. You can choose to change the things that are in your control. Through wisdom, you will realize things that are in your control, and you will choose to focus your energy on those things, not those things that are out of your control.
It is Their Fault (that I Emotionally Reacted)
“If he wouldn’t have brought up politics, then I wouldn’t have reacted that way.” “If she wouldn’t have brought her then we wouldn’t be having this discussion.” “If they would just shut up and stop talking about my body image then I wouldn’t have to say these things.” “If you would get off your lazy ass and help then I wouldn’t be so damn tired!” “If they didn’t….then I wouldn’t….”
We all fall into the trap of blaming others for our emotions. Anger, embarrassment, anxiety, jealousy, shame, depression, and pride are all feelings that contribute to inappropriate or hurtful emotional reactions. It is hard to accept responsibility for our emotional outbursts when it feels like our emotions control us.
The truth is our emotions are not dependent on other people. Our emotions are dependent on us. While people say and do things that may influence us, our emotional strings are not being pulled by the people around us. We are social beings. Part of being social means having and expressing emotions that are appropriate for the given social situation. As such, we often feel like it is everyone else’s fault for our inappropriate reactions. We find it easier to blame someone else than to accept responsibility for how we react to things. Yet, once we accept responsibility for our emotional reactions, we are empowered to control our emotional reactions. Being in control of our emotions allows us to be with loved ones in a positive and healthy manner.
Tips for Success, Not Stress for Your Holidays
Here are a few strategies and summaries from above to help you spread joy during this holiday season. These tips will help you prevent conflict from occurring while minimizing your stress.
- Control the things you can control and let go of the things out of your control. This may mean that you must accept things you don’t like. But remember, you are not responsible for someone else’s emotions, only your own emotions. You cannot control how everyone else behaves, only yourself. Instead of using blaming “You” statements, use “I” statements. For instance, instead of saying “You are so mean and such a burden!” Say, “I feel hurt when you say those things.”
- Choose the emotions, thoughts, and behaviors that you want to have and set boundaries. Associate with loved ones who share similar intentions. Be purposeful with your thoughts, behaviors, and emotions. No one else can make you have an emotional reaction. If you find that your emotions are being undesirably influenced by someone else, excuse yourself and walk away. Give yourself permission to have some personal space or time to gain control of your thoughts and emotions. Set boundaries for yourself.
- Establish topics and conversations that are off limits before the event. It seems like no matter what we do, politics, religion, sports, and relationships become the focal point of so many arguments at holiday gatherings. Set discussion topic limits with your friends and family before gatherings. Have a consensus among members/guests of what are acceptable and unacceptable topics. If necessary, you can even have a safe word that everyone can use. When used it means that the conversation must immediately stop because people are feeling uncomfortable. Choose a safe word that is not commonly used (e.g., xylophone) to avoid confusion. This can help mitigate conflict without escalating the issue.
- Switch sides: Argue your opponent’s point better than them and practice empathy. This may sound counterintuitive. However, if you find yourself in a disagreement, switch sides. Play a role reversal where each party involved in the argument must switch sides and argue the other person’s opinions. By doing this you not only temper emotions, but you also practice empathy and demonstrate understanding of the other person’s side. This has been found to reduce conflict and sometimes even creates funny situations.
- Place value on your relationship with others, not the situation. Recognize that there is a big difference between a person and a behavior. If your partner or loved ones do something to upset you, recognize that what they did is rather trivial in comparison the value that you place on them. Teens and adolescents say and do things that they do not mean. Determine what is most important to you, winning the argument or your relationship with a loved one. Once you recognize that you value the person and your relationship with them more than a given situation or behavior, the easier it will be for you to let it go and to have a positive relationship with them. You can acknowledge your feelings about the situation to the person (using “I” statements), but also that you value your relationship with them more.
- Be present and take care of you. Think of a few things that you can do for yourself that make you happy and help you feel present and connected. Advocate for your own wellbeing and be kind to yourself. To be blunt, you are no good to anyone else when you are at your worst or less than your best. Take care of yourself first so that you can be your best! It’s not selfish or wrong to desire to be your best and to do things that help you achieve your best. It’s like the old adage that says “Ain’t nobody happy if momma ain’t happy.” Well, if you are not happy, then you are not your best. The people you love and those that love you want you to be your best. They want the best happy you that you can be.
Authored by Dr. Ryan Kron Behavioral Psychologist at The Truism Center in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Visit our website to learn more about scheduling an appointment with Dr. Ryan or any of our resident counseling staff.