Whether you decide to meet in-person or virtually this year, family is still family — with all the things you love, and the dynamics that drive you nuts. This is one reason the holidays can be so stressful.
In many families, there’s a dynamic of competition over who is more successful. Or who gets more love, attention or financial support. Maybe there’s an unhinged family member who is constantly stirring things up.
By now, you likely have some idea of your particular family dynamics and what triggers you the most. If not, now is a great time to begin developing that awareness.
If you want to keep interactions constructive this holiday season, no matter who you’re talking to, use these three tips to guide your approach:
Stay out of your head.
Stay above the belt.
Stay Out of Your Head
Family dynamics are based on the longest standing behavior patterns established with your earliest relationships. Because of this, they tap into powerful unconscious forces that can drag you way off balance.
For example, maybe certain conversations you try to have with your sister end with her shouting, “you’re trying to dominate me!” when all you want is for her to listen to you for once. If you pay attention, you can probably trace this pattern back to childhood and the things that were impacting both of you then. Now, it has become part of the story you tell yourselves about how your relationship works (or doesn’t work). In your version of the story, she always refuses to hear you. No matter how hard you try, your sister will never understand. Why do you even bother? In her version, no matter what the topic, you always run over her like a Sherman tank, and it’s your way or the highway!
There’s nothing like a longstanding storyline to get you up in your head. When you get caught up like this, you’re only reinforcing your old role. The first step towards a more constructive interaction is to become more aware of the part you play in the dynamic.
It can also be helpful to remember that these dynamics have a peculiar ability to tap into your Stone Age brain’s fight, flight or freeze response. When this reaction is triggered, you see only two options: fight about it or avoid the conflict. To counteract the brain’s default, self-awareness is imperative. With greater self-awareness, you can learn to recognize your triggers and reactions so that you can make the constructive choice to calm down rather than react with outrage or avoidance. Once you calm down, you’ll have a better chance of seeing alternatives that are not so obvious to you when you’re reacting and acting out your old role.
The most vital shift you can make right now is to recognize that no matter how much you want to, you can’t change another person’s behavior, at least not directly. What you absolutely can do is change your own behavior and exercise your choice to interact with greater consciousness.
For example, what happens if you stop trying to tell your sister what she doesn’t want to hear? As soon as she starts driving you up the wall with her excuses, that’s your cue to calm down by focusing on your breath and waiting until your outrage passes before rejoining the conversation. You might even need to take a “bathroom break” to get some space for yourself so you don’t engage with old, toxic patterns.
Self-awareness and detachment can go a long way to keep you from succumbing to outworn self-perceptions and behaviors. Your sister’s behavior may not change in response, but shifting your role in this way and maintaining this shift consistently can have a profound impact on your self-esteem and empowerment.
I don’t recommend going into a family gathering telling yourself that everything is going to be perfectly fine (for the first time ever). That isn’t realistic and will only set you up for disappointment. Instead, keep an open mind, free of expectations. That means all expectations, both positive and negative. The fact is, we never know what will happen.
Prepare yourself to witness the dynamics as they unfold and to listen and observe without judgment. Give each family member the space to be who they are, for better or worse, without feeling the need to “fix” them. I talk more about how to exercise this kind of compassion with family members in this blog post.
Being in the present moment with an open mind is probably one of the best gifts you can offer your family and yourself. At the very least, it will have a stabilizing and grounding effect on you and your sense of well-being. You’ll find being present and open-minded will allow you to really listen. You’ll be more able to spot the comments or actions that previously would have hooked you, and you can exercise the conscious choice to simply let them go.
Stay Above the Belt
If you want your interactions to be constructive, you have to make taking responsibility for yourself your number one priority. Staying focused on “keeping your own side of the street clean” will allow you to acknowledge and recognize the impact of your part in things so you can make different choices.
For example, do you sometimes push people’s buttons and act shocked when they get angry? Is someone else constantly pushing your buttons? If so, can you choose to remain calm rather than reacting?
If you do find yourself in a difficult interaction with someone despite your best efforts to remain calm, do your best to stay above the belt. By this I mean resist the temptation to exploit the vulnerabilities of others, just to win an argument.
When you find yourself triggered, it is crucial that you wait until your emotions settle down before saying or doing something destructive that you’ll regret later. If you are pressured to speak when upset, say something like, “I need to think about this. Let me get back to you.”
Keep in mind that describing your initial emotional reaction in the moment is not the same as expressing your true feelings. “It really pisses me off when you…” is not a sentence starter that leads to dealing with an issue constructively. Clarity about your true feelings only comes when you take the time you need to process what happened, so reconsider “getting it out” by verbally purging your distress and tension. Wait until you are calm, then decide what (if anything) would be a constructive response.
If interacting with your family seems like a minefield, treat it like one. Maybe religion is a tense subject in your family, or maybe it’s politics. Whatever it is, make a decision not to go there, or to go there only with consciousness and respect. And if someone else goes there, don’t engage. When you stay open-minded, you can respect the difference, even if you don’t respect their opinion.
One technique I have found helpful is to treat entering a family gathering as if I’m entering sacred space. No weapons allowed, and no acting out. This way, I come in peace, prepared to use compassion to work towards more worthwhile interactions with those I love. I may not get it right every time, but practice definitely improves my average!
The holidays provide the perfect time to practice staying out of your head, staying open minded and staying above the belt. Good luck! And let me know how it goes for you this holiday season.
Take good care : )