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Tangled holiday lights, stale fruitcakes, and tasteless gingerbread houses must mean one thing: It’s time to visit family.
Did your stomach just drop?
While the holidays are meant to be a memorable time of year when we peel ourselves away from work to interact with our families, some of us find that it is also a time where we have fewer excuses to avoid interacting with family members we don’t like.
Visiting one’s extended or chosen family is not a dreadful experience for everyone. But for those of us who maintain irreconcilable differences with members of our family, thoughts of the holidays might trigger memories of awkward moments at the dinner table or heated arguments at the mall.
If you find that you are on your way to spending the holidays with family members you would rather not be around, here are some pointers on how to survive a worst-case scenario:
Don’t be an animal. Being around people who don’t necessarily share the same views as you can lead to feeling like you are psychologically backed into a corner. When an animal is backed into a corner, it will usually lash out to defend itself. Humans are no different in this respect. However, we have the ability to verbalize or intellectualize what is happening to us internally before things spin out of control.
If you start to become angry, that is a classic sign that emotions are starting to rise and might spin out of control. The key here is to recognize that you are becoming angry and excuse yourself from the immediate situation as soon as possible.
When emotions get fired up, it is unlikely that anything productive will happen. In fact, we tend to stick to our opinions with more conviction when emotional. Instead, find anything to distract yourself from the situation and calm down.
What if distraction isn’t an option? Then it’s time for some super-human self-control. If someone insists on arguing with you and you can’t get away, there are a couple things you need to do.
First, give the other person’s emotions a label and comment on those emotions. As I mentioned before, arguing when emotions are high will not result in anything productive. Instead, notice the emotions that the person is putting out and comment on them until the person calms down.
This is called “reflection” and almost always works if used properly since it forces the person to consider whether your assessment of their emotional state is correct. Additionally, it deflects the argument away from you and forces the person to accept whatever emotions are brought up. This often results in mild embarrassment for people who allow emotions to escalate too far.
Something as simple as, "You seem really angry," or, "you sound very passionate about this," will go a long way to diffusing a tense argument that would otherwise spin out of control quickly. Think of some statements like these before getting into a heated argument and you will be set.
Remember - only comment on the person’s emotions until they calm down - no other comments at all.
Second, keep your wits about you by controlling your own emotions. If you know that certain topics stir up strong emotions in you, set a goal for when you will allow yourself to feel those emotions. Something as simple as counting to ten before feeling hurt by another person’s comments will help keep you from going on autopilot and feeling like you are losing your mind.
Even though it is entirely possible to survive a visit with family members you dislike and maintain your sanity by following these quick tips, wouldn’t it be better to enjoy time with them instead? Perhaps that is something that can be explored and developed in the year to come so that your next visit won’t put you back into survival mode.
Have a safe and enjoyable holiday season a Happy New Year!
Stephen Brewer, M.A. is a registered psychological assistant (PSB33858) in Scripps Ranch and is supervised by Angela Spenser, PhD (PSY15450). He runs a LGBT and kink-friendly practice, specializing in addictions, trauma, HIV/AIDS, and men’s issues. He can be reached at (619) 377–3120 or you can visit his website at http://www.therapybrew.com.