Tips for dealing with those whacky family members during the holidays
By Barbara Pierce
I love the lights sparkling on the Christmas tree, the presents underneath with their promises, and the flickering candles that make the table so festive, adding to the excitement in the air.
What I don’t love are some of my family.
The sister-in-law who drinks too much and talks about herself non-stop; the boring son-in-law who only wants to talk politics, and his politics are way different than mine; the weird brother-in-law who never says a word; the sister who wants to use family get-togethers for family therapy.
You know how it is; you probably have people like those in your family. People you wouldn’t spend a minute with if you had a choice.
My way of coping is to focus on the food and eat too much while reminding myself it won’t last forever. Of course, there are better ways of coping and I need to remind myself of these things.
Remember that all families are taxing in one way or another. Every family is crazy-making in its own special way. There are unresolved conflicts and unspoken resentments lingering in the air at all times.
Just because you’re related to someone doesn’t mean that you get along or even like them.
— Practice acceptance of others. When you have an issue with a family member, they aren’t going to change — don’t expect that maybe this year will be better. Accepting others as they are, with their weaknesses, doesn’t mean being blind to their shortcomings. It just means you stop fighting it. You work around it.
— Accept family members as they are. Don’t expect them to live up to all of your expectations. Try to be understanding when others get upset or distressed when something goes awry. Chances are they’re feeling the effects of holiday stress too.
Remember they really aren’t doing it on purpose: They aren’t aware of what they’re doing. They have little or no idea of how others perceive them, because if they truly felt the impact of their behavior on others, they would try to change. Or, if they know what they’re doing, they don’t know how to change.
Decide your own fate
— Set time limits. Take the initiative to plan where you’ll get together with them. For example, if you’re more comfortable at your mom’s than at your sister’s, choose to go to your mom’s. Limit how long you’ll stay; just excuse yourself when it’s time to go. Think ahead about various options until you come up with a scenario that makes you feel comfortable. Spend time with your family, but on your terms.
— Step away: If things become too tense, take a time out. Leave the room for a breather. Recognize that the other person has issues, not you. Don’t take it personally.
— Caricature the person: If someone especially gets under your skin and is intolerable, make him or her a cartoon figure in your mind. If I view my tipsy talkative sister-in-law as a big motor mouth staggering around, she’ll never know and I’ll be laughing to myself.
— Keep a sense of humor: As with everything holiday-related, keep a sense of humor. If a contentious discussion is brewing, be ready to change the subject. Politely interrupt the combatants by engaging someone across the table in another topic. If nothing else, you can remind people ahead of time that the holidays are supposed to be about special family time, not about hashing out controversial issues.
— Look at the big picture: I choose to have a relationship with my brother, though I don’t care for his wife. He seems to be happy with her, so I’ll just put up with the two of them. I choose to have a relationship with my daughter, so I’ll tolerate my son-in-law’s bombastic personality.
I know this particular gathering of individuals is unique and won’t last forever, and I’ll probably miss it when it’s gone.
— Practice empathy: Instead of focusing on your feelings about those family members, try tuning in to see how they might be feeling. My brother isn’t easy to live with — maybe I’d need to blur the edges of reality if I lived with him. My brother-in-law who never says anything? Maybe he’s overwhelmed by all the talking everyone else does and doesn’t feel confident enough to say anything.
Look closely at the ones who bite their tongues and eat in silence, because they’re probably suffering the most. You can feel empathy for the flawed people around you, and for yourself. They’re trying, bless their hearts. They are tolerating a lot.
Give yourself credit for doing your best, and try to enjoy the family you have — no matter how crazy things get.
• Barbara Pierce is a retired licensed clinical social worker with many years of experience helping people. If you would like to purchase a copy of her book, “When You Come to the Edge: Aging” or if you have questions for her, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.