Holidays Are Coming: Are Your Relatives “Difficult People?”

As the holidays approach, many people begin to make plans for where they’ll go and what they’ll do. For many it is a time of excitement and pleasure – seeing relatives or friends that they may not see at other times during the year. But many people dread the holidays’ approach, just waiting for them to be over.

While I was growing up, I hated holidays. Alcoholics everywhere, fighting over the dinner table with aunts and uncles – it was generally a terrible environment where no one enjoyed anything. It took me years as an adult to really enjoy holidays with my own family, and I work hard to make sure they are pleasurable experiences for my own children.

But what if you are in a situation where you must deal with difficult people – your relatives? What do you do when you cringe at the idea of spending time with them across the dinner table? How will they embarrass you? What will they say that makes you upset?

It’s time to prepare for your upcoming events. Avoidance is one strategy, for sure, but assuming you want to spend some time with other relatives who will also be present, or can’t say “no” for whatever reason, here are some options for getting through – and maybe even enjoying – your holidays, whatever they may bring:

(1) Adopt an attitude of “Interested Observer” at the family gatherings. Imagine yourself to be a detective investigating your family event. If you are inclined, you can make it a game with a notebook and everything. Of course, do not make it obvious you are doing this, but work to be passive, logical and observant about what’s going on, rather than drawn in and reactive. See if you can identify people with certain traits and explore in a truly curious manner why they are as they are.

(2) Take care of yourself and be sure you are as little stressed as possible, and in good mental and physical health. For the time leading up to the holidays, find your outlet – take walks, go to the gym, take long baths, read a favorite book, spend time with those people you do enjoy. Whatever is important to you, do some of it leading up to the event. If you can do something the day of the event, even better, but get yourself in a “good place” mentally and physically.

(3) Learn stress reduction techniques. The “STOP!” sign is one of my favorites. When self-talk goes negative, or I’m unhappy with something and begin to ruminate on it, I place a mental STOP sign in my mind. I then begin to sing a song I like; “Come On, Eileen” is my personal favorite but you need to choose one of your own. While someone is droning on about something, instead of talking to yourself and getting more upset, just mentally sing your own song.

(4) Practice a reframe. We see the world through our own filters, and we do often get what we expect. Instead of dreading Aunt Mabel, or your father, or your sister’s kids, put a different frame around them. See them as human beings struggling with something they can’t deal with well. Most people who act out in a difficult manner have not learned more effective ways to cope. They lash out, or become depressed, or drink too much because they don’t know what else to do.