Avoid Getting Hooked Into Family Drama

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The truth about it is that, irrespective of our individual beliefs about the meaning of a particular holiday, the season’s sights, smells, and most especially its expectations tend to trigger the lifetime of memories that we associate with it. If the holiday is the only time you see your extended family, you aren’t really developing ongoing relationships with them that reflect who you and they are in the present.

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Feeling anxious about time with relatives this holiday season? Here are some tips  to avoid getting hooked into family drama.

It happens every year at this time. You’re not as excited to see your relatives as you think you should be; and are feeling more than slightly anxious. Old family rivalries, jealousy, and bitter feelings ‘hook’ us, and suddenly we’re reliving hurt feelings from years or even decades earlier. But wait, we’re supposed to love these people and want to see them each year, right? Well, more on that in a bit.

First, let’s get clear. How do we get hooked, anyway? Have you ever been around your relatives and found yourself getting really irritated about the stuff they do that they’ve always done?

  • Maybe it’s the way cousin Clarice takes it personally when you head for seconds of whatever her sister brought, but pass up more than the daintiest spoonful of Clarice’s bland and kinda nasty corn concoction.
  • Maybe it’s the fact that you bought gifts for your sister and her three kids who are old enough to have crows feet and receding hairlines, and you still only get one present from them as a family.
  • Maybe it’s their politics or attitudes about cultural differences that seriously bug you.

One minute you’re okay, and in the next you’re trying to calm yourself about whatever nerve of yours they just stomped. They did it again. That same thing they always do. Suddenly you’re not just mad, but mad AND about as rational as a 10 year-old.

After you get home, you end up being mad at yourself because you let them hook you once again. The rest of your life feels together, but the minute family is involved, it’s Oscar-worthy drama happening all over again.

Don’t feel guilty or foolish. It happens to the best of us. Even we mental health professionals do this stuff, except with the small pleasure of quasi-diagnosing everyone who annoys us (“seriously, she’s such a narcissist” we say to our sympathetic therapist friends afterward).   

The truth about it is that, irrespective of our individual beliefs about the meaning of a particular holiday, the season’s sights, smells, and most especially its expectations tend to trigger the lifetime of memories that we associate with it. If the holiday is the only time you see your extended family, you aren’t really developing ongoing relationships with them that reflect who you and they are in the present.

If you only see a person for a few hours at a holiday party that happens once a year, you are much more likely to fall rather quickly into old rivalries and jealousies of the past than if you have an ongoing relationship with them.

Because your relatives experience the same reaction toward you, old stuff gets triggered. Your relationships are rooted in your past, and the past will be brought up, either as a topic or merely as a deep-seated emotional presence during holiday get-togethers.

A thing to realize is that your folks are probably feeling as anxious about the holidays as you. Just like you, they’re probably trying to convince themselves that because you’re family, they’re supposed to love you and want to spend the holiday with you.

Of course, the best thing for yourself is to spend holidays with the people you really care about and want to see. As a therapist, I’m pretty big on the notion of family of choice. It’s refreshing to spend a holiday with people who genuinely like us and who don’t talk about us in the kitchen the way Aunt Sue does.

If the big family holiday gathering is truly unavoidable and you are already steeling yourself for it, well, this might help.

  1. Give yourself a time limit that’s reasonable to eat, share presents, chat, whatever. 2-3 hours may be plenty, depending on the distance you drove to get there (and a long distance to get home may be a good reason to keep the visit short).
  2. Plan to arrive earlier than later. It’s much easier to greet people a few at a time than to walk into a house filled with people.
  3. If you have kids, give them something to look forward to after it’s over so they won’t be disappointed when the time limit’s up. They tend to enjoy holiday parties more than adults do.

At the party:

  1. Eat what you want because it’s what you want to eat. If you don’t like Cousin Clarice’s corn thing, don’t eat it.
  2. Be willing to get to know your people for who they are today. Listen to them as you would someone you’re meeting for the first time. When you approach relatives without your old tapes of past injuries and injustices playing in the background, you might find that you really like them, or at least, that they have a really interesting aspect to their lives.
  3. Have an escape plan. Remind yourself that you are an adult who’s at this party by your free will. Every moment that you are there, you are making a decision to be there. Take ownership of your choices.
  4. Do not take their viewpoints, their hang-ups, their baggage, or any other aspect of what they say or do personally. It’s really their thing, and unless they pay your bills, what they think probably doesn’t make a lot of difference in your life.

Above all, try to appreciate the meaning of the holiday. It’s a time to get together and celebrate with people who have known you your whole life, not all of whom may be here next year. Use it to bury differences because  your time with them isn’t guaranteed.

Happy Holidays, everyone! See you in 2016-

Dr. Stacee