(Reprinted from CourageWorks column in Forbes magazine)
I love my family. Most the time I really like them too. Which is why I’m excited to have twenty-six rel’s coming for Christmas lunch this year. But I also know that family dynamics can trigger some less than merry tension among the relative ranks.
Comedian George Burns once said: “Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family… in another city.” Having lived in another country from my large, loving, caring and close-knit family for much of the last 20 years, I can’t subscribe to Burns’ cynicism. But there’s no doubt that those we’re related to can cause us far more emotional burn than those we aren’t.
As I shared in a TV interview on The Morning Show, relatives push our buttons because they created our buttons. So while you may love them, but you might not always like them, and expecting that you should always get along like the Waltons can set you up for extra anguish.
While there’s no easy secret recipe to handling difficult rel’s (besides never seeing them), here’s a few suggestions to set you up for as Merry a Christmas as possible, regardless of how many drinks Uncle Norm chugs down before midday, Cousin Sally’s one-eyed political views and Sibling Sam’s snide remarks. (And for the record, I don’t have any relatives called Norm, Sally or Sam, and any resemblance to these characters is purely coincidental…. sort of.)
1. Prepare in Advance
Accept your ‘relative reality’ and start strategizing – before Santa shows up – for ways you can steer conversations in a safe direction, for responses to sensitive ‘hot button’ issues, and for activities that can keep everyone safely occupied. You might even want to come up with an exit strategy should you reach the about-to-lose-it-point. Rehearse them to yourself ahead of time. When you practice what you will do in a stressful situation, it creates neural pathways in your brain that make it easier to do when you’re actually in it. Likewise, do a little visualization: picture yourself inside a bubble made of psychological Teflon, where snarky remarks bounce right off you.
2. Act Big… No Matter What
Don’t get sucked into someone’s web of negativity. That’s just what they’re baiting you to do. No matter how small or petty they may act, make sure you are civil no matter what. The last thing you want is for your negative reaction to overshadow the initial offense. Whatever you do, don’t just react impulsively, but consciously DECIDE HOW YOU WANT TO ACT. You can’t do anything to change what others say or do; you can only change what you do.
3. Pause Before Speaking
If everyone took just five seconds to think about the impact their words could have before uttering them, we’d probably live in a more peaceful world. In the pregnant pause between thinking and speaking, your neurons make the essential leap from the amygdala, or the instinctive ‘fight or flight’ center of the brain which processes stimuli like a hormonal teenager (I know, I have two of them), to the prefrontal cortex which is the more logical and rational part of your brain.
Genuinely happy people have no need to pull others down or stir up trouble. So if your sibling has a dig at you, it’s not about you, it’s about them and the unresolved baggage they’ve yet to deal with. When someone says something intended to hurt you, it’s because they want you to feel pain like they do. Don’t take it personally – that just makes you easy prey for people with a chip (or an entire forest) on their shoulder that only they can remove.
5. Ask Safe Questions
Likewise, some questions can very easily rub people the wrong way. “So, when are you going to get married/start a family/find a real job?” Rather show your interest with more open-ended questions, like “What are you up to these days?”
6. Focus on the Kids
Most of the time, focusing on the kids can be a fairly safe and benign activity. (Though if discussing kids is where your family falls apart, steer clear!) If you are going to someone else’s home, offer to bring along a few fun activities that can keep people engaged and short-circuit any tensions. I’m planning to create a slide show of family holidays and celebrations that I’m sure will bring up many fond memories for adults and kids alike (my kids love photos of me circa 1983 with permed hair and blue eye shadow!)
7. Schedule Recovery Time
Just because you prepare for the blows doesn’t mean they won’t hurt and leave you emotionally bruised and deflated. Once the tension makers have departed, allow some recovery time to regroup. And if you are going to be with people, make sure to steer well clear of emotional vampires and surround yourself with ‘energy givers’ who will remind me that you really are a great person after all.
8. Lower Your “Martha Stewart” Bar
Too many people sweat the small stuff – whether it be getting the ‘stuffing’ just right or having the perfect table setting. Focus on what matters most and lower your bar on everything else. Minimizing your own stress levels will help you desensitize those buttons that family seem to trigger so easily. In the big scheme of life, does it really matter if you serve lunch two hours late? If you sit further up the “control freak” end of the spectrum, and love everything to be Martha-Stewart-perfect, try to ease up on yourself and everyone else so you can enjoy the day, whatever happens.
The fact is nothing in life is as rich as spending quality time with people you love. So focus your attention on the gift of family with all their dynamics, personalities and imperfections. And yes, it’s cliché I know, but never forget the “reason for the season” and that you have a family that loves you (and maybe even likes you too). There are millions of people who’d love nothing more than to be surrounded by family on Christmas day.
On that note, I wish you a Merry Christmas or whatever tradition dominates your life at this festive time of year.