I’m hearing from many folks these days about their fears of being with families of origin over the holidays. Fears of getting into fights about political differences. Fears of being expected to conform to religious language and practices that no longer fit. Fears of being ridiculed about life choices or decisions. Fears of family members getting drunk, or abusive. Most often, the fear of loneliness, right there in the middle of the family.
So here are some survival tips. These are ways to stay present with yourself, so even if no one else sees you, you’ve still got a witness! You’ve decided, for presumably good reasons, that you want to be with your family, or your in-laws’ family, for the holidays. So you can also decide to make the visit fun, even if you have to work at it. Here are some tactics I’ve used on different occasions—may they be of use to you!
1. Remind yourself, in advance, about why you love each person who will be there. Call up that memory and dwell on it while they are holding forth on a topic you do not want to hear about it. If they seem to be waiting for your comment on their favorite Fox News show, just smile a little bit and say, “Hmmm. Sorry, I spaced out. I was just remembering when we were kids and we built that treehouse! That was so fun!”
2. For some elderly relatives, keeping them focused on favorite parts of their past can be much more fun than hearing their frustrations about the present. They may be lonely, or in chronic pain, or bitter right now, but that doesn’t mean they always were. Think about parts of their lives you are interested in, and ask them questions. Childhood may or may not be a good place to start. One question I’ve found can open doors is, Looking back, what would you say was the happiest time of your life? And then dig in there.
3. Try responding to negativity or bitterness with observations about the weather. (This tip could have saved me years of therapy. It helped me to realize that people who were complaining usually were not asking me to make their lives better—they simply wanted to complain!)
4. Program your smartphone with the names of some of your closest support network in chat or instant message, so that on a quick trip to the bathroom, you can cry out for help, share the awful thing someone just said or just say, “Remind me that I am loveable.” Technology can allow you to have in-the-moment support. I suggest 5 or 6 people at once so that at least one of them can get back to you before your hands are washed!
5. Again with a smartphone, scroll through the newsfeed on your facebook page. Remind yourself there is life outside of your family!
6. If you don’t have a smartphone, try some old fashioned ways to take friends with you. Have them write affirmations, jokes, or poems for you to open and read when needed.
7. There’s always the good-old bingo card. Just making it is a kind of inoculation! Make a bingo card with words or topics that are likely to come up and upset you. Then, when they say hard things, at least you can work your way towards a bingo! Possible squares: Grandchildren, weight loss, your haircut, better job, Obamacare, gay marriage, people who are going to hell.
8. At meals, ask to sit at the kids’ table. You’ll be lifted up as a hero and you’ll probably have more fun.
9. Remind yourself that, as annoying and frustrating these people are, they are yours, and you will miss them when they are gone!
And, Happy Holidays, to you and your kin!