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Managing Family Drama – Nov 2021 – resized

Dealing with difficult family members can be especially challenging during the holiday season. The holidays are supposed to be about peace, happiness, and celebration, yet many of us find that they bring more stress. We inevitably have an extra-long to-do list, much of it feeling obligatory based on what we believe others may or may not expect from us. When we gather with family, old dynamics come to the surface and it’s hard not to get caught up in old feelings or conflicts that have never really been resolved.

Whatever mix of stress and joy you typically experience during the holidays, taking some time in advance to consider what matters most and how you want to handle things can improve the experience for you and everyone you spend time with. If you could change anything about your holiday experience this year, what would be different?

Here are some tips to consider as you navigate the season:

  1. Get clarity on what is most important to you when it comes to family and the holidays. We often follow or rebel against our typical traditions without asking what the purpose is for each of us. A grandmother may want to follow traditions because it’s the only way she knows to stay connected with her grandchildren. Her twenty-something grandson may avoid gatherings, so he doesn’t have to deal with constant questions about what he’s doing with his life. Yet what’s important to them both is that they are cared about and matter to the rest of the family.
  2. Own that when you feel stressed, you are likely to be contributing to the stress of others. While it may seem like your stress is caused by others not pulling their weight or being judgmental, by allowing yourself to be triggered by those behaviors, YOU are also contributing to the overall stress through your energy and reactions. Your frustration will show in your tone of voice and people will experience you as bossy and critical. Or, if you withdraw and avoid as a way to cope, people will experience you as sulky or aloof.
  3. Understand that the holidays are not the time to try to change or “fix” the broken parts of your family. All families have issues, and all people have flaws. There are ways to support a loved one in changing or improving their lives, but because we often feel the most exposed and vulnerable during the holidays, it’s best to instead help them feel accepted for who they are. We can reduce a lot of holiday stress by setting a cease fire rule and having truces, even if they are temporary. Be realistic about what to expect from your family and build your plan around their typical behavior instead of wishing they would change, at least for the holiday season.
  4. You have the right to protect yourself from anything that hurts you. Just like your stress will infect everyone around you, your happiness will infect others too. If you take responsibility for your own happiness, you will add to others’ joy too. And if you have clarity on what you’d like to add, eliminate, or change to take care of yourself this year, ask for it. You may get pushback and you can decide where your boundaries are, but you will make progress by starting the discussion and revealing to others what matters to you. Chances are they also have some things they’d like to change but are hesitant to bring up, and the resulting conversation could lead to something that works better for everyone.

We’ve created a five-step process that follows the acronym PEACE to help you plan for a better holiday season with your family this year.

P – Prepare by thinking deeply about what your values are and what is most important to you.
E – Empathize by considering what might be the positive intention or value behind the behavior that bothers you.
A – Ask for what you need or what you’d like to change, even if you don’t think people will agree.
C – Care for yourself by owning your part in the stress and getting your own needs met.
E – Expect things to go wrong, because it takes time for things to change, and have a backup plan.

Here is an example of one client who went through this process to reduce her family stress during the holidays.

Melissa had a secret struggle with her husband Tom that got worse every time they visited her family. Tom seemed to have a problem with alcohol in social situations. He would drink to relax and have fun but would overdo it, often embarrassing her with his drunken antics. This was a difficult issue to broach with Tom because he’d get angry and defensive at the suggestion that he might have a problem with alcohol. At home he rarely drank, and when out to dinner he would stop after a couple of drinks. Melissa dreaded bringing Tom to family celebrations because alcohol always flowed freely. She wanted her family to approve of Tom, but his embarrassing displays ruined every gathering.

When we put Melissa through the PEACE process, here is what she discovered:

P – Prepare by thinking deeply about what your values are and what is most important to you.

Melissa was clear that she valued being with family and it was important to her that Tom be part of her family. She wanted him to feel comfortable and like he belonged, and she wanted her family to love and respect him.

E – Empathize by considering what might be the positive intention or value behind the behavior that bothers you.

Melissa thought about things from Tom’s perspective and imagined that he might feel uncomfortable around the in-laws. The alcohol relaxed him, but by the time he felt relaxed enough to enjoy the gathering, he would also lose the self-awareness that kept him on his best behavior. At the same time, any implication that he might have a problem with alcohol embarrassed him, so it was almost impossible to have a conversation with him about this.

A – Ask for what you need or what you’d like to change, even if you don’t think people will agree.

Melissa could have asked her family not to serve alcohol at their gatherings, but she worried that highlighting the issue would make Tom feel embarrassed and want to avoid the family altogether. Instead, she thought through the issue, practiced having the conversation without getting hijacked, and broached the issue to Tom. Rather than suggesting that Tom might have a problem with alcohol, she empathized with how it might be uncomfortable for him to be with her family and asked what she could do to help make it more comfortable. She also asked if he could limit his drinking to two glasses of wine, citing that it’s so easy to lose track after that and she knew he didn’t want to appear drunk, adding to his awkwardness later. This was a tough conversation, but Tom agreed to be careful.

C – Care for yourself by owning your part in the stress and getting your own needs met.

Melissa realized that she typically reacted to Tom’s drinking by getting anxious and controlling, which often triggered Tom and lead him to want to drink more in retaliation. She did some deep soul-searching and realized that her attachment to her parent’s opinion of Tom played a big part in the drama. If he drank too much, it was really her embarrassment that was causing the angst. She realized that it wasn’t her job to control what her parents thought of Tom. They would have their own opinions regardless. If she could let go of that, maybe she could relax and enjoy herself and not react to Tom’s behavior.

E – Expect things to go wrong because it takes time for things to change and have a backup plan.

Melissa knew she was going to have a hard time not flinching if Tom drank too much and started slurring his words in front of her parents, so she came up with three possible backup plans to take care of herself if the worst happened. First, if she saw Tom going for more wine after his second glass, she would find a way to take him aside and remind him that while she wanted him to feel relaxed, she would prefer he didn’t drink any more alcohol. She knew this conversation would only go well if she wasn’t upset, so her second backup plan was to remind herself that she could not control her parents’ opinions and to know that her parents would always love her regardless. Her third backup plan was to notice that if she was no longer enjoying her time, she would find a way to excuse herself. If they were staying over, she would simply smile, hug everyone and say she was going to bed. And lastly, she would arrange to spend some time with her parents without Tom around so that she could solidify those relationships one-on-one.

What Melissa Discovered:

Melissa’s plan didn’t work perfectly. Tom still got defensive when she brought up the topic, and she still felt like she couldn’t relax when she was at her parents. But three good things happened. First, she and Tom were able to agree that two drinks would be a boundary. Second, Tom shared more openly how he felt when he was at her parents’, and they found ways she could help make it a safer experience for him emotionally. And most importantly, Melissa discovered how caught up she was in the opinions of others and began to bravely let go of trying to manage those opinions. As she let go, she enjoyed herself more and showed up to others as more authentic and relaxed. She heard at least three times over the holiday season how much her friends and family enjoyed spending time with her. Making this connection gave her far more control of her happiness and empowered her to accelerate her growth in all areas of her life.

If you’re feeling anxiety about spending time with family this holiday season and would like to work through this exercise with Nahid, feel free to reach out via e-mail to nahid@coachnahid.com or call 714-931-2133.

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