Who’s your crazy Uncle Larry? Every family’s got one. Get yourself ready to spend some quality time together.
By the end of the year, many of us have mixed feelings about the holidays. The year is concluding and around the corner is a new one and, with it, the promise of new beginnings. But before we get there we have to survive the holiday season emotionally and mentally intact.
From a purely commercial sense, the holidays can bring the excitement of nostalgic ambiance. Full of festive parties and colorful decorations. But in our personal lives, they usually come with stressful family gatherings.
For many of us, the holidays inject into our lives a healthy dose of angst, tension, and dismay as we contemplate the inevitable family interactions. We may love our families (most of the time) but such concentration of togetherness can stain even the best of relationships.
Why We Dread Family Gatherings
Dreading family gatherings is about coming face-to-face with old wounds and/or uncomfortable behavior. Behavior that we can conveniently ignore throughout most of the rest of the year.
Families know our weak spots. They can abruptly reopen old wounds, pour a tablespoon of salt on them, and then aggressively rub it in. Often these hurts evolve into modern tensions. Materializing as vocalized disappointments, displayed disapproval, controlling tendencies, or passive-aggressive guilt. Fun times!
Knowing some family time is probably unavoidable during this season, we need to buck up and face it head-on. If not, we will just be in a state of despair which will ruin our own holiday season. We don’t deserve that!
Instead, we can make a conscious decision to look at this anew. Turn it upside down, inside out and try to derive some humor in all the mental chaos. A good first place to start is to count the blessings we do have.
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Family is a Blessing That Not Everyone Has
Our families are where we come from. They are our DNA (usually) and our culture. Like it or not. They were instrumental in shaping our earliest and most vulnerable selves. Some of us are proud of this and others fight hard to overcome it. Therapists stay in business for a reason.
Whatever your outlook on family, if you have one, it may be helpful to look upon them as a blessing. They are your tribe and have a propensity to care about you even in their sometimes warped way.
But it’s worth examining this objectively given that there are many people in this world who do not have anyone at all. Not a single person in their lives that cares about them. People who are truly alone would actually welcome a neurotic sister to turn to even if only once in a while.
But I realize these words may be a short-sighted perspective when the day of holiday reckoning comes and you are obliged to wade into the emotional familial fracas. You need a survivor's guide to navigate with some grace. To keep your emotions intact and perhaps have some fun at your Uncle Larry’s expense. The way to get through this is to make a game of it.
Objectify Your Family
The best approach to managing your emotions during these encounters is to mindfully and objectively observe your family. Look upon them with a curiosity like they’re someone else’s family or another species.
There’s a research methodology in social science called participant observation. It’s a technique of joining groups of people dissimilar to yourself in order to observe their behavior and then later report on it.
Like, imagine going to a maximum-security prison to observe hardened criminals. (This, of course, assumes you are not a hardened criminal.) If you take the approach of objectively observing your own family as if they belong to a separate group from yourself, you can allow your fascination to take over.
Picture observing a family gathering from an alternative universe (for some, that’s not a big stretch).
Oh, how interesting…
You walk on your hands.
You wear your clothes backward.
You eat rocks.
Now substitute in any political, cultural, or social norm that you just simply cannot understand and/or agree with and observe it as a peculiar oddity.
You voted for whom?!
You do what for a living?
You believe in what?!
If your family believes night is day and white is black, just sit back and say, “Hmm, very interesting.” It helps a lot when you have a partner or friend with you that is not related to your family. They can be more objective because they don’t carry the same emotional baggage. Have them be your wingman/wingwoman. They’ll remind you to keep your thinking straight.
Choose to Be Entertained
Imagine the Drama. Every family has some level of dysfunction. Every single family. The amount is just relative. So, given this fact let’s decide to be creative in our amusement about this.
What would the sitcom be named that is based on your family? What would the plot be? And the characters? That’s probably an easy one. If you look upon your family’s dramatic tendencies as another thread in a must-see Netflix show, it kinda takes some of the sting out of the condescending backhanded compliments. What’s your Modern Family look like?
Tally the Insults. Before arriving at your destination of torture (or welcoming your overbearing guests), create a list of all the predictable and expected digs, insults, passive-aggressive mutterings, or irksome commentary.
Keep this list handy in your head and play a type of Insult BINGO. With each passing disrespect or ludicrous comment, you can mentally check off the box. Make some predictions ahead of time and then see how many you can mark off at one gathering.
Plan the Burn. So, if you know you’re going into live fire, you need to be prepared. If your mother-in-law will say that thing she always says that gets under your skin, plan accordingly.
Anticipate the worst offenders and their typical remarks and come up with responses that will shut them down definitively yet tactfully. No need to stoop to their level. You want to plan out the response ahead of time. Think of the come back your future self would wish you had thought to say in such instances.
Plan an Escape Route
Depending on the size of your gathering you may find yourself sucked into an interaction you’d rather not have. Whether it’s your nosy grandmother or your egotistical second cousin you need to figure out an effective exit strategy.
Rotate and Mingle. When a conversation is going nowhere or perhaps you can feel yourself getting hot under the collar, it’s time to switch it up. Excuse yourself to go mingle with more benign guests.
Your excuse can be under the guise of catching up with all family during the gathering. You can also excuse yourself to go help with kitchen duty. Whether it’s meal prep or cleanup it’s probably the one time of year we gladly appreciate kitchen work. The exception, of course, is if the chef de cuisine annoys the hell out of you.
Go Take a Breather at Starbucks. Do you find it interesting that Starbucks is open most of the day on holidays? I think it’s by design. They wish to extend some goodwill to their customers that need a family dysfunction refuge.
Walking into the coffee shop immediately gives you a renewed sense of belonging (and normalcy). You look around at other patrons and almost perceptibly acknowledge to one another, “Yes, I know. Me too.”
Be a Holiday Social Butterfly. Likely your immediate family is not your only family. Many of us have in-laws, step-families, or friends that are like family (sometimes better than family). They deserve your time and attention too.
Set expectations early on with your host that you will be needing to leave at another time due to other commitments. Ignore that passive-aggressive guilt from your mother, mother-in-law, etc. Knowing your time with family will be limited will make getting through the engagement tolerable. Enjoyable? Maybe. Doable? Absolutely.
Know Your Limits. Defend Your Boundaries.
While these tips are intended to ease the burden, it is not to sugarcoat. Family has a way of pushing our buttons and making us lose control of the composure we normally default to in other circumstances. Tense family interactions can immediately revert us back to the seven-year-old that had no say and no means of escape.
It’s debatable what rude or offensive behavior crosses the line. But we should be honest about what’s too painful to bear. It’s important to remember that regardless of how you feel in that moment, you are an adult and you have power.
You are within your right to set boundaries and deliver repercussion to anyone who does not respect them. You have the capability to respond directly to disrespect and the power to remove yourself from uncomfortable and exhausting environments.
Feelings may be hurt but your sanity should be held to a higher premium.
Reclaim Your Sanity with Friends and Loved Ones
When the party's over and you're back to your familiar confines, time and distance will help you decompress. It’s helpful to have other family dysfunction comrades in your life to lament to and, in turn, support.
With distance and time the intensity of emotions subside and hurt feelings (yours or theirs) lessen. If you feel like there’s a recurring theme that never gets resolved from year to year, it could be helpful to find some clarity through therapy.
As the song goes, It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year! While the cynical mockery piles up it may be time to flip the script. There is no reason this should not be true.
You have a lot to celebrate and managing through family celebrations with aplomb may be the greatest holiday gift you could give yourself.
So go ahead and embrace the family togetherness and enjoy crazy Uncle Larry. Affirmatively nod when he tells you how much he loves eating rocks.
If you’re planning to attend a holiday family gathering and you’re feeling apprehensive, make a plan. Use some of the suggestions here to think through how things will likely go and how you wish to respond in the moment.
What creative ways have you managed through difficult family gatherings? Please share your advice in the comments below!