Dealing with Difficult Family During the Holidays

Every time I anticipate being with family again, I envision it as one of the many, many holiday commercials that begin to crop up this time of year: hot morning cups of coffee in an updated, generic looking kitchen; matching pajamas; cozy smiles; soft music playing in the background; corny jokes and hearty laughs to boot.

Every year I go home and am sorely disappointed.

Family is—in my opinion—one of the most beautiful things we experience in this life. But it is not one long “’tis the season” Starbucks ad.

It can be not only difficult to come to terms with the family we were given—rather than the one we think we should have—but also painfully challenging to deal with the unhealthy dynamics and at-times-unpleasant individuals in a loving way.

Family is made up of broken people who are typically trying their best, just like the rest of the world.

The differences are, in our own families, we are made privy to exactly how broken these people are, and we’re inevitably affected by their various wounds and problematic behaviors: annoying relatives, controlling family members, family drama . . . take your pick. At the same time, we don’t see ourselves as broken or our behavior as problematic, adding another level of difficulty to the mix.

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It’s easy in friendships or casual relationships to romanticize the other person, because we don’t see their true depth—good and bad. We usually see only what they want to present. This idealization is especially prevalent in the age of social media, where everyone puts their best, most photogenic, perfectly manicured foot forward.

Because of this, we find ourselves wondering what on earth is wrong with us and why our families are so dysfunctional.

Maybe your family is more dysfunctional than mine (although mine does feel pretty darn dysfunctional sometimes). The point is, every single family has its problems, because every single person has problems; and families are simply people who have been brought together and who choose to love.

Just because my time at home won’t look like a delightful holiday season commercial, it doesn’t mean I should avoid family gatherings.

Just because we know our families are broken, it doesn’t mean we can’t love them.

All this being said, here is how to deal with difficult family members, avoid (or at least reduce) family conflicts, and love your dysfunctional family this holiday season.

Mentally Prepare

No, I don’t mean you should embrace the dread you may be feeling, because it’s going to be terrible. That can be there, but you should also consider how you want to feel during the holidays. Joyful, excited, peaceful? I know it may seem too good to be true, but you do have a choice in the matter. Your emotions don’t have to be at the mercy of your siblings’ sarcastic remarks or parents’ evident disapproval. Remember that, though an emotion may surface quickly and dangerously after a rude comment or uncomfortable question (“So, are you seeing anyone?”), you don’t have to act on it or let it simmer indefinitely.

The more you are investing in yourself and meeting your own needs, the calmer and more equipped you will feel despite the chaos you may be immersed in.

Consider the biases you may have toward your family members. Aunt Soandso is stuck up, or Grandma is disappointed I’m not married yet. Let your family surprise you. Maybe your aunt can be down to earth if you give her a chance and chat with her over dinner. Maybe Grandma isn’t disappointed, only curious. Really strive to see the good instead of only the bad. The more you go into it determined to see the best in people, the more you’ll be able to enjoy the time with your family, instead of merely tolerating it.

Self-care

In preparation for your trip and time at home, take extra good care of yourself. Make sure you get your exercise in, maybe even a few more workouts than normal. Do your best to eat well (I know this is super hard during the holidays) in the weeks before. You can also consider splurging on a massage, manicure, or facial (or extra meetings with your therapist). Read a good book that inspires you, or make time for morning walks. Additionally, spending extra time in the classroom of silence can help you feel calmer about the unpleasant situations you may be anticipating.

The more you are investing in yourself and meeting your own needs (physical, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual), the calmer and more equipped you will feel despite the chaos and potential (but hopefully not) family drama you may be immersed in. Step up your self-care beforehand, and do your best to at least maintain these rituals throughout your time with family.

Boundaries

Sometimes loving people means establishing boundaries. In fact, boundaries can help us love our friends and family more. There are boundaries regarding what you can do (when you’re available and when you’re unavailable), and boundaries regarding what the relationship is.

Life is short, and the holidays fly by. Be present to your, seek to understand and to love.

You should be clear on the nature of the relationship: you are not your parents’ marital counselor or your sibling’s emotional punching bag. If you’re not establishing the boundary and taking time to recharge—that’s not on the other person, that’s on you. You may not be able to control what someone else does, but you can control what they get away with.

If a relative makes a snide remark—even if it is delivered as a “joke”—you can call them out, calmly and respectfully. If your parents start confiding in you about their marital troubles or speaking ill of the other, it’s okay for you to say “Mom (or Dad), I love you, but I don’t think we should be having this conversation.”

Take heed of warning signs: anger, resentment, low energy. Allow yourself time to separate from the group to take a breather and come back once you’re in a healthier mind space.

Empathy

Walk a mile in their shoes. Your uncle who’s a little pretentious, your mom who’s a little critical, your brother who states his opinions as fact, your cousin who drinks a little too much . . . each and every one of them is fighting a battle you may have no idea about. They all have hurts and past experiences that have shaped them into who they are today—there’s more to them than what you’re seeing. Try, to the extent that you can, to see things from their point of view. Ask questions, listen, step into their person for a moment. As you come to really know someone, it becomes a lot harder not to love them.

As painful and frustrating and difficult as these people can be, for whatever reason, we were chosen to love them. As their family, we have a huge responsibility to remind them that they are loved—no matter how much we want to strangle them at times.

Life is short, and the holidays fly by. Don’t waste this time texting your friends about how crazy your family is making you (even if it’s true). Do your best to be present to them, seek to understand and to love. It’s easy to forget that the family is the school of love—and it can be incredibly powerful (for better or for worse).

No, the holidays aren’t going to be the picture-perfect scene I was promised by Folgers or JCPenney, but I’ll take real over perfect any day.

“Life itself is a messy, untidy, haphazard affair.”

- Dorothy Day

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