3 Quick Tips for Surviving Your Family During the Holidays
If you are wildly lucky, they’re your support in times of trouble, your friends and confidants. But even the best of families have their moments, and many families are…well…less like the Waltons than one might wish.
No one pushes your buttons faster. No one else knows (and enjoys recounting) every single mistake you’ve made since infancy. No one can take you for granted so easily, ask you the same invasive question for the thousandth time, or dismiss your accomplishments with such complete devastation.
So how do you make it through the holidays without poisoning the festive nog?
1. Set Realistic Expectations:
If, every Christmas for the past ten years, Auntie June has asked you why you’re still single (or, not yet a parent, not involved in the family business, going bald, not making as much money as your brother, etc.), odds are that she’ll be asking the same intrusive question this year, too.
This shouldn’t disappoint you. There’s no need to be angry, or embarrassed, or defensive. She is who she is, and she (like you) is the product of a whole network of relationships and choices. Her questions aren’t even really about you—they’re about her, and her own fears and concerns and limitations. So, brace yourself, and, when she performs her invariable role, have an answer ready. Depending on your relationship, you can choose from a whole raft of options, ranging from the rude to the generous.
But, before you prep some devastating Winston Churchill-esque retort(1), think about your endgame. What do you want out of the holiday encounter?
Really, what do you want? Best-case scenario.
To set a good example for the kids? To “win” the conversation?
You can’t make someone offer you validation, acceptance, or kindness. But you can choose whether or not to accept their emotional vitriol, and you can choose how you will respond.
So, perhaps the more important question is—who do you want to be?
Will you choose to be kind, to be clever, to be cruel, to be funny? What response will you look back on with pride?
And sometimes we focus so strongly on our reaction to overbearing personalities that we forget that all relationships have two sides. You have the power to impact Auntie Jane’s emotions, too. Do you know whether she’s in physical pain? What old emotional hurts keep driving her today?
What do you want Auntie Jane’s holiday experience to be?
And, if all else fails, remember that most people, even cranky old Auntie Jane, think that they’re acting from the good motivations, so if you play to that expectation, they’re less likely to push the confrontation: “Thank you so much for your concern Auntie Jane. I can always count on you to worry about me.”
2. Invest Your Emotions Wisely:
When most people think about investments, we tend to think in financial terms of risks and gains, long-term and short-term. But we don’t always think of our emotions in such quantifiable terms, even though, as sociologist Robert Waldinger points out, emotional connections have a far more profound impact on our health, well-being, and life expectancy.
Waldinger is the current director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development project, a 75-year study that has tracked the lives of 724 men over 75 years—seen some move from wealth to poverty, others move from poverty to wealth.
They’ve noted health changes and social changes, marriages and deaths, losses and triumphs. Then they looked back over the data, to see what factors were the best predictors for happy, healthy lives. It turns out that all of the data pointed to a single conclusion—
The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.
According to the medical and sociological data that they gathered, the quality of our closest relationships is a better predictor for health and longevity than any other factor. People with strong ties to family, to friends, and to community live longer, have healthier brain function, and still describe themselves as happy, even when they’re in physical pain.
On the other hand, loneliness has a toxic effect on the body and the brain. Hostile relationships magnify physical pain with emotional pain. And the chronic stress of emotional conflict can have a cumulatively devastating effect on your future well-being.
So, before this holiday season hits its peak, think about your constellation of relationships in mathematical terms. Where have you been investing your energy? Are you burning all of your energy on the toxic relationships, or are you consciously, actively investing the bulk of your emotions in the positive relationships that pay out in high returns? How can you improve your emotional portfolio?
3. Remember to Find an Outlet:
When it comes to burning off emotional overload, women generally have an advantage over men, because women tend to deal with their problems as a group. They’ll talk it through, empathize with common failures, and strategize about common challenges. Men, however, tend to deal with their emotions individually.
So, here are a few easy tricks to blow off some emotional steam. Not all of them will work for everyone, but it’s worth trying something new.
- Do something intensely physical. It’s a cliché for a reason; intense physical exercise has a strong, positive effect on emotional stress because it forces the body to perform at peak capacity, simultaneously improving your brain chemistry and releasing toxins. It also stops stress from building tension into your muscles.
- Spend some time outdoors. We have a physical and emotional response to our environment, so taking the time to breathe some fresh air can actually clear your head and ground your emotions. Also, trees are unlikely to provoke further quarrels.
- Check in with a friend. If that means physically getting out of the house to share a beer with a sympathetic sister, a favorite cousin, or a buddy from work—then make it happen. If you can build in some breaks, you’re a lot less likely to lose your cool when you’re overloaded with intense family relationships.
- Look for stories. Instead of reacting to your family’s antics as if they’re all out to personally drive you to insanity, think about the stories that you’ll get out of the experience—Auntie Jane’s foray into the Christmas punch, Grandpa Albert’s holiday soliloquy… If you can accept those moments for their long-term comedic value, you’ll be much less likely to internalize any insult or embarrassment.
- Dress with confidence. It’s a lot easier to put up with criticism when you feel your best, so take the time to swap out the pjs for something a little classy.
(1) Bessie Braddock, MP: “Winston, you’re drunk!”
Winston Churchill: “Bessie, you’re ugly! And in the morning, I shall be sober.”