Families are never completely harmonious. They are comprised of people, bound together by genetic and marital ties, who often are not free to discuss conflicts as openly as is healthy. There are often undercurrents of tension and unresolved hurts in any family interactions.
Add a family Christmas, with all the stresses that “perfect” day brings. Add to the mix some freeing alcohol. Add to the mix the proximity with people who have caused those tensions and unresolved hurts.
Mix these ingredients and you have an explosive mix.
You can try to avoid difficult topics, but inevitably something will come up, particularly if you have the mix listed above.
Below are 8 steps you can use to survive the family Christmas. 8 steps to help you keep away from the difficult topics you may not be ready to discuss in a large family gathering.
- PREPARE FOR THE DAY.
Are you expecting challenging topics of conversation? Plan in advance how to manage and deescalate these potential ignition points.
a) PLAN TO SET BOUNDARIES
You can set boundaries by letting family members know what areas are contentious and that you want avoided. You can practice how you will set this boundary in a positive, affirming way.
Maybe you might say something like: “I love seeing you and our time together is really great. There are just some things that we disagree on and maybe we can avoid discussing them today so that we can enjoy our time together.”
b) PREPARE AHEAD
Before you meet up, think about happy things you and this family member/s have in common. Are there happy childhood memories you can share, do you have the same interests? Brainstorm ideas of topics of conversation so you are ready to have a conversation. When you have no topic to discuss, conversations tend to follow well worn paths. If those well worn paths are the contentious ones, then that is what you are going to end up having a conversation about.
- REDIRECT THE CONVERSATION.
Preparing ahead safe topics to discuss will allow you to quickly redirect the conversation to a safer topic that is related to the contentious topic. It is easier to pivot if the topic is related somehow, so if someone brings up a humiliating episode when you were a child and were swimming, you may bring in a conversation about wonderful beaches to visit and direct people to that topic. In that situation, the chances are that others in the conversation are not happy to bring up the humiliating episode either and will welcome the change to change the topic.
- REHEARSE WHAT YOU ARE GOING TO SAY.
When you are under stress, you will tend to do what is habitual. So well used responses to others will tend to be used. This will quickly derail your intention to steer away from the uncomfortable conversations. So practise what you will say. Have imaginary conversations where the other person says something they usually say, or makes a comment about a situation they usually comment on. Imagine redirecting the conversation away from that contentious comment and what you will say. While you are doing this, imagine being relaxed and able to deflect any triggers in their words. Imagine calmly setting a boundary, or redirecting the conversation, or making a statement.
While you are imagining this conversation, practice taking calming breaths and imagine you are releasing all the tension and it is flying away as you breathe out. As you breathe in, imagine you are breathing in peace and calm.
If you have a family member who makes highly politicised comments, or makes racist comments, or expresses strong extremist viewpoints, practice a statement that acknowledges their opinion but indicates it is not up for discussion. The well tried response to this is to “agree to disagree” and have no more conversation around that.
Sometimes these statements are deliberate attempts to bait you into responding. Don’t. Set the boundary and try to change the topic of conversation. If the person still persists, walk away. Take a walk around the block if you need to calm down. Just remain calm until you are somewhere where it is safe for you to be upset. More on that later.
- BRING OUT THE OLD HAPPY MEMORIES.
This is another redirecting technique. Bringing out a positive family story involving a happy memory. The more family members involved in this memory the better. If you start off saying “Remember when xxx” you are inviting others to add their recollections of the memory. Not only is that fun to share in happy reminiscences, it also shuts down anyone negative due to the weight of people participating in a new conversation.
Remember, a family member who is difficult for you to get along with, may also be difficult for others to get along with. Other family members may welcome your efforts to redirect the conversation and be more than happy to jump in with enthusiasm. After all, everyone wants to have a lovely day.
- FOCUS ON FUN FAMILY TRADITIONS.
There will no doubt be things your family enjoy doing together on family occasions. There are families that love to gather around the piano and sing Christmas carols. Others love to play games. Others have a post Christmas lunch walk.
If your family has traditions then make sure they are carried out. If they don’t have any, then introduce some new things you think family members will be interested in. Prepare the ground for this. Talk about this “fun” idea with family members you think will be useful allies in this so that when you introduce the idea it will be supported by other people. These traditions are a great way to distract from unpleasant conversations.
- PRACTICE GRATITUDE.
In the lead up to Christmas, think of at least 10 things to be grateful for each day. Write them down and say them out loud, followed by three thank yous. Slowly introduce gratitudes for family members.
Don’t force the jolliness. Find things you are genuinely grateful for. They may range from extraordinary things to the seemingly mundane such as your health, your home, your job and so on.
Each day add gratitudes for family members. Start with the ones you love seeing. As you get close to Christmas think about the ones that cause you grief. Is there anything about them you like? Anything about them you admire? Try to find something to be grateful for about them. One might be that they are diligent about attending the family Christmas every year. Another might be they help with the washing up. Another might be they love their car. Find something to be grateful for.
Finding positives help you to feel more empowered and more in control of those difficult situations. It also helps to see the main protagonists as people with less power than you thought they had.
- FIND ALLIES.
Think about who will be at the Christmas event and identify those you find supportive. They may be the type who will speak up and support you at the time of the difficulty, or they may be someone you can speak to later to help you calm down.
It is easier to manage in stressful situations when you know you have support.
- PRACTICE CALMING TECHNIQUES.
One of the easiest ways to calm down is breathing. It is best to practice this technique in advance so that it is second nature when you need it. If you try this for the first time when you need it, it is unlikely to work effectively.
a) MINDFUL BREATHING
The best way to practice is to start small.
• Set a reminder on your phone for every hour if possible.
• Now prepare to breathe for 1 minute.
• Set a timer for 1 minute.
• Sit quietly with your hands resting in your lap.
• You may choose to let your focus slip or you may choose to close your eyes.
• Now breathe in while noticing the feeling of the air entering your nose and your chest and tummy rising with the in breath.
• Now breathe out while notice the feeling of your chest and tummy falling and the feeling of the air passing through your nose.
• With the next in breath, imagine you are inhaling calming air. Imagine it is a beautiful calming colour such as blue or green, whatever your find calming. See that coloured air entering your nose and lungs.
• Now breathe out all the tension and difficult emotions. Imagine the air you breathe out is the colour of tension and difficult emotions such as red, whatever you find expresses what you are feeling.
• Continue breathing in calm and breathing out tension. You can say to yourself I am breathing in calm on the in breath. And you can say I am breathing out tension/anger (name emotion) on the out breath.
• If you notice your mind wander away from noticing your breath just return your attention to your breath without judging yourself.
• Continue until 1 minute is up. Notice how you are feeling calmer and more in control of your emotions.
If you practice your 1 minute mediation as often as you can you may consider the next day practising for 5 minutes sometimes and 1 minute at others.
Practice as often as you can. When you need this calming at the Christmas event you will find it easier to slip into the practice if you have taken the time to practice in advance.
You can use mindful breathing sitting or moving around. Many people practice as they are walking. This is something you might try if you need to get some space away from the difficult people.
b) RELEASING WALK
The walk works like this:
• Don’t rush to push the emotions you feel away. Allow yourself to feel them, name them and walk them out. Stamp if you need to, walk fast if you need to. Swing your arms around. Whatever allows you to release what you are feeling.
• Once you have allowed yourself that time and you have acknowledged and released the emotions you can then walk at a calmer pace at your speed.
• Notice what is around you. What can you see, hear, smell, touch or taste?
• Take a deep in breath. Notice the sensation of that breath entering your body as you walk.
• Release that breath and notice the sensation of it leaving your body as you walk.
• Continue breathing and paying attention to your breath.
• Remember to breathe in calm and breathe out stress, anger and/or other distressing emotions you are experiencing.
• As you notice yourself feeling calmer, you can start paying attention to the beauty around you.
• Remember to just return your attention to your breath if your mind starts to wander.
• As you settle into this calming routine, allow yourself to feel your feet on the ground. Feel the ground supporting you are you walk.
• Allow yourself to feel the air around you. Feel the air wrapping you in its loving embrace.
• Continue walking, feeling the calm and feeling the support that surrounds you.
• When you are ready you can return to the gathering.
• You may decide to stay there, you may decide to communicate boundaries, you may decide to leave. Do whatever feels right for you.
- MAKE OTHER ARRANGEMENTS
If you feel that it is too distressing to attend the family Christmas, make other arrangements.
Maybe you would like to attend a community lunch.
Maybe you know other people who are on their own at Christmas. Perhaps you can get together to celebrate.
Maybe you would like the day alone with some lovely food and a stack of movies/games/books you would love to watch.
You may even find other family members don’t like the event and would be happy to do something with you instead.
A FINAL WORD
You have prepared yourself for the family Christmas and it is still difficult. Be okay with that. Don’t forget your strategies. Set realistic expectations of how people will be and prepare for this.
Do take the time to take some calming breaths before responding to other people. It can help to name what you are feeling. This allows you to cope better. It also allows you space to decide to not react to this person. It is in this moment you may choose to walk away, or calmly say their comment is inappropriate, or not funny, or unacceptable or anything else.
People can get to you with their behaviour and comments because you have unresolved hurts. After Christmas, review the family Christmas. What came up for you? Is there something you need to resolve. Counselling can be really helpful to explore and resolve old hurts. You can also learn helpful strategies to cope.
WHERE TO GET HELP
If you would like to talk to me about how I can help you with your unresolved hurts, please contact me on 0409396608 or email@example.com
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