We have asked psychologists to give us their best tips on how to navigate family gatherings around the holidays and stay emotionally intact throughout the not-so-silent nights and days with your relatives.
Tip #1 Lower your expectations
Each year, social media and ads bombard us with picture-perfect representations of family dinners. Big smiles everywhere, no conflict in sight, just knit-tight family members enjoying the moment to the fullest. Naturally, this can impact our expectations for the festive season, letting us hope for a Christmas miracle that would settle all family feuds. Chances are that you will most likely be disappointed. According to psychologist Paul Hessels, acceptance is key in these situations:
“Give some room for acceptance. This does not mean accepting the viewpoints of the other person, but accepting the reality that someone has a different perspective. This alone can alleviate some of the frustration.”
So, remember: instead of expecting perfection, just try lowering your expectations a bit. Give some room for acceptance, prepare some casual talking points in advance and focus on what brings you joy, for instance, the turkey!
Tip #2 Set Boundaries
Even though you usually know when somebody has crossed a line, it is not always easy to express these feelings out loud. If someone or something is triggering you, consider removing yourself from the situation (“Who needs help in the kitchen?”) or making it clear that you would prefer not to discuss that topic. For instance, if you find it emotionally draining to answer a family member’s comments on your love life, you can just pivot the conversation or politely – but firmly – state your discomfort and wishes. A simple: “I would rather not talk about that right now” can go a long way.
Finally, don’t be too hard on yourself: when it comes to setting boundaries, practice makes perfect!
Tip #3 Don’t take part in negative group dynamics
Group dynamics are tricky to navigate. The bigger the group is, the more complex the power dynamics are. And for some people, it is even more difficult than for others. Keep that in mind when your cousin, who is generally on your side when it is just the two of you, unexpectedly turns their back on you in front of your parents.
Try to change the narrative whether it is siding against a relative during a family feud, or pulling a bystander into a heated debate. If you disagree with someone in your family and want to engage in a discussion, keep in mind some non-violent communication strategies – or maybe save this discussion for another day.
Tip #4 Avoid time travelling
Some people just don’t want to change. Whether it is their questionable political views or their sexist take on gender equality, some of our family members can bring back unpleasant memories. It makes it even harder for us to not get caught in the past, and go back to old negative patterns that we thought were way behind us.
To stay grounded in the present, you can practice beforehand some mindfulness exercises. If necessary, don’t hesitate to take a break during the actual reunion or dinner to repeat words of affirmation that make you feel calm(er) and in control.
How OpenUp can support you
For many, family gatherings can be a source of stress, conflicts and emotional harm. When dealing with kinfolk, try to keep in mind that the only person you can be responsible for is yourself. If you need additional support to go through this festive season, a psychologist can help you to assert your boundaries or navigate complex family dynamics.