Navigating Challenging Relationships Over the Holidays

The holidays are rapidly approaching and can be a time of joy and a chance to reconnect with family and friends. But for many it can also be a time of stress due to strained relationships, unhappy memories of the past, too much to do and not enough time to rest. In addition, there can also the feelings of disappointment or failure stemming from the expectation that our holidays should be “perfect” like those seen in movies, commercials and social media. Unfortunately, many families and friends are also experiencing strained relationships over the increasing polarization of views in the country today. The good news is there are several tools we can use to manage the holidays and difficult relationships this year.

Awareness is first!

Before the holidays begin, take time to think about what you would like to be different this year. Before we can plan, we need to become aware of what our goal is, so we can set up a way to work toward it. Be as specific as possible and list what you would ideally like from your relationships. The list can also include what you do not want to happen. As you make these lists, tune into how your mind and body are reacting. If thinking about visiting your in-laws makes your neck stiffen or if going to see your Aunt Jane makes you feel excited, write that down as well. Noticing cues can help us create a plan that will increase our enjoyment of the season.

Become curious about your reactions.

Now that you have made your list, become curious about what the positives and negatives are in the relationships you have examined. Asking yourself questions like “what exactly causes my neck to stiffen when think of visiting my in-laws?” can help with planning how to do something different. Tune into your feelings and notice what arises. Maybe you feel judged or criticized or maybe just disappointed because you have different expectations than those you are with at the time. Do certain people trigger negative reactions? Noticing will help you understand your unmet needs and negative feelings.

Examine your list and begin to plan.

By examining the lists, we can begin to challenge our assumptions. This will give us information about just how important things are and if we are doing them because we feel we “should” or because we want to do them. It can also help us to see what we value and how we can use our values to help us navigate tricky situations. If we feel physically ill when we visit certain people or filled with dread before going, is it necessary that we go. What would happen if we did not? If we feel we must go, is there a way we could do it differently? For example, is instead of going to a three-hour dinner at Aunt Jane’s while trying to manage your 2-year-old or getting drawn into a political debate, maybe we could stop in before dinner for a drink or go by for dessert. Good boundaries are essential for keeping relationships positive.

Plan for challenging situations! If we must visit people who we know will be challenging, consider using these strategies:

  • Plan to get plenty of rest before you go. When we are depleted it is harder to deal with difficult people. Even taking 5 minutes to rest in your car can be helpful.
  • Have an exit strategy when you have had enough and use it when you need to. Even if it is to go in another room and wash dishes it is better than remaining in a situation where you feel triggered.
  • Take a breathing break. Head into a quiet place and take 10 breaths. Allowing for this pause will help us respond instead of reacting in a habitual way.
  • Assume positive intention in others. Many misunderstandings start when we assume the other party has a negative intention. If they do, stay calm and respond in a kind but firm way that you are uncomfortable with their comment.
  • Model positive behavior. Steer clear of gossip, judgements and strong “my way or the highway” opinions to keep the interaction positive.