December 27, 2015

How to Survive the Holidays with a Difficult Family: The One thing we need.

family kid dad parents

The myth of the happy family.

Tolstoy begins Anna Karenina with, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Maybe all the happy families hang out together on a private island in the South Pacific, maybe they’re the true one percent, but most families have a few skeletons in their closets.

And something very special happens during the holiday season.

The skeletons come alive.

Year after year, whether we’re aware of it or not, they enact an age-old play with static roles and stale scripts.

In psychology, our tendency as adults to regress to childhood behaviour amidst family members is seen as a relapse of the ego to an earlier stage of maturity. You may notice it when your usual calm demeanour flies out the window and you’re sucked into a game of one-upmanship with your favourite rival sibling.

For people with difficult families, just making it through the holidays in one piece seems to hinge on one of two choices: engage or absorb.

Engaging means defending your boundaries, not accepting insults and standing your ground. But if you have a family that loves drama, this leads to the coveted holiday row (because everyone secretly loves a good fight) and the aftermath of the emotional hangover. Absorbing, on the other hand, means swallowing the passive-aggressive comments, keeping your mouth shut at things that don’t jive with your moral compass, plastering on a big smile and pretending everything is grand. At its best, it leads to a quiet festering. At its worst, it makes you liable to fly off the handle at the smallest provocation.

Neither of these options is particularly palatable.

So how to do the impossible? How can we bypass regression and handle difficult family members with that seemingly out-of-reach modicum of grace?


Why our blind spots matter.

American psychologists Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham created the Johari window to help give people insight about themselves. The window has four quadrants, each representing a part of our selves that is either hidden or visible to others or ourselves:

courtesy of author, sabrina conrad

Each of us has a blind spot of varying size. It’s something that others can see about us that we can’t. These can be either positive or negative attributes. As it pertains to holiday regression, the negative ones concern us.

Our blind spots are the Achilles’ heel of the holiday battlefield—er, dinner table. No matter how open (or guarded) we think we are, the probability is high that we will be caught unaware by a comment or an off the cuff remark. It’s in these moments that we lose our composure and say the things we can never take back.

Blind spots are inevitable. We can’t erase them completely, but we can shine a light on them.


Knowledge is power.

If winning at the holidays is the goal, then winning needs to be redefined. Because sometimes when you win, you lose. For example, winning an argument at the cost of hurting a family member’s confidence.

Surviving the holidays while leaving a trail of emotional wreckage in your wake is the easy thing. Making it through the holidays having given the best parts of yourself—humility, compassion, empathy—leaves everyone feeling richer. It’s what this game is really about.


How to win the holiday game.

It’s simple, if not easy: Get a support team.

Having a team is the ace in your back pocket. These are the people you rely on for objective advice. The ones you go to with your innermost problems. They include therapists, coaches, healers. They are your sanity keepers, dream holders and reality checkers.

If you’re a dreamer and you’ve made it this far without a support team, I salute you. I was in that boat. I was too afraid to ask for help because I didn’t think I deserved it. But ever since I committed to the idea of the team, in fits and starts at first and now fully, my life has taken on new dimensions. It didn’t become easier, but it became more deeply beautiful. I gained access to a previously hidden “turbo boost” button that has allowed me to operate from a new level and meet bigger challenges head-on.

It’s the difference between getting by and thriving.

The team consists of people who are dedicated to supporting you. Your romantic partners don’t get to be on the team. Neither do family members or best friends. Although these people can provide other forms of support, they don’t make the cut because they inherently lack objectivity.

So when your grandmother asks you why you’re single for the fiftieth time, or when your drunk uncle makes inappropriate comments, or when polite conversation turns to why Donald Trump would actually make a great President, knowing you have a team behind you lets you shrug it off like water off a duck’s back.

You can choose how you react knowing that you’ll later be retelling your victories and failures to compassionate listeners. The team holds you accountable for your actions. The team motivates you to be your best self. The team will reveal your blind spots.

It will also help unearth the most interesting quadrant of all—your unknown unknowns.

The team members may change but the importance you place on having one will not.

Your team can consist of one person. Your team can currently be non-existent. But you can start building one at any moment. Having a team means committing to growth, which is about the only thing you get to control.

But it’s enough. Because here’s the thing about grace: It is earned and not bestowed. And you earn it by doing what’s hardest—over and over again.

And who knows, maybe next year you’ll celebrate the holidays on a metaphorical island in the South Pacific.


Relephant Read:

The Highly Sensitive Person’s Guide to Surviving the Holidays.


Author: Sabrina Esther

Editor: Toby Israel

Image: plaisanter/Flickr // Anne Worner/Flickr


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