Episode 2 of the Get Psyched with Ayan podcast. It’s that time of the year again – Holiday Season. Only a few weeks left to prepare for that epic family gathering, both physically and emotionally.
Are you the person who looks forward to these gatherings without a shred of anxiety and who takes pride in the strong, healthy and positive relationships that you have nurtured with everyone who will be at the table? If so, then you can skip this article. Carry on with your holiday shopping, ‘cos you are a Relationship Ninja.
For the rest of us, I get what you may be going through, as this season can be incredibly anxiety provoking.
Racist grandpas, judgy grandmas, rebellious and sulky teenagers, messy toddlers, jealous brothers, envious and gossipy sisters, difficult aunts, sexual innuendo uncles… That’s the stuff legendary family gatherings are made of and which also provide characters for our recurring nightmares.
As a psychotherapist and a self-proclaimed social analyst, I decided to analyze what makes some families better at transcending these differences and working well as a unit, when put under one roof. I have distilled my observations here into these 5 important tips. I hope you find this list as handy as your wine bottle opener, during the holiday season.
Honour differences, even if you hate it (Hint – Be Curious)
This is a big one. So you supported Bernie Sanders during the US elections and your grandpa is a staunch Trump follower. That’s a dinner table skirmish waiting to happen! So how can you diffuse this situation, honour those differences and get on with the turkey?
Firstly, avoid such incendiary topics, if you can. But if it does come up, try to be curious. Ask grandpa, curious, open ended, non-judgmental questions and steer the conversation towards the sharing of personal experiences, rather than beliefs. Everyone loves a good dinner table story and it can help you empathize with the other person and diffuse the tension. For example, “Grandpa, I hear your views on immigration, and I am curious, how was it like to come to Canada from England/Italy/Poland for you and your dad? Can you tell us a story?”
Prepare for encounters with difficult relatives
Your brother is coming for the family gathering and you both have that longstanding feud about losing money on that joint venture, he convinced you to join. Your relationship with him has become icy, punctuated with sarcasm and passive aggressive behaviour. How can you improve on this situation?
Practice responding to potential encounters. Roleplay with your partner or close friend, give them lines that your brother might use and practice your response. See if you can come up with a rational, empathetic response that can diffuse the tension effectively. One of the best ways is to acknowledge their perspective at face value and simply paraphrase what they just said. It’s not rocket science. It’s about making them feel heard and validated. The biggest reason why small disagreements turn into nasty family feuds, is because the parties involved don’t feel heard or acknowledged.
[pullquote] The biggest reason why small disagreements turn into nasty family feuds, is because the parties involved don’t feel heard or acknowledged[/pullquote]
Being gentle with each other and doing your emotional growth work
It is not difficult to be gentle with each other initially, but as the list of mini-hurts in the relationship piles up without recourse, when true feelings are withheld, or when they are shared with violence, being gentle with one another in a family can become really challenging. This is where good quality relationship psychotherapy and counselling can be very beneficial. This should ideally involve releasing some of the repressed and unacknowledged feelings within the safety of a therapy setting. Also, learning and practising communication skills, such as Non-Violent Communication and actively reprocessing core issues that trigger us to unleash dinner table Armageddon, can be beneficial.
[pullquote]Also, learning and practising communication skills, such as Non-Violent Communication and actively reprocessing core issues that trigger us to unleash dinner table Armageddon, can be beneficial [/pullquote]
Self-care, delegating chores and our desire to control the show
The holiday season can be incredibly taxing on those who host the family gatherings and hence it is important to start early, break big tasks into smaller chunks and most importantly ask for help! I know that you may want to control everything from the tree decorations to the placement of the last spoon on the dinner table, but think about how much work that is. Also, a family that can foster co-operation, healthy autonomy and task delegation within itself, generally does well at dinner tables. If you find it difficult to relinquish control over relatively trivial tasks, then it may be helpful to bring that up with your therapist. Reducing your stress levels during this season will go a long way in improving your general mood and your interactions with others.
Practice Practice Practice
We are not born with a Relationship for Dummies manual. It takes sustained practice to learn the various skills that come into play when maintaining healthy relationships. Practice new communication techniques with your partner or your children. Go book that therapy session for yourself. Mend relationship fences, when they are broken and know that human relationships are more resilient than you may like to believe.
If you have any questions regarding any of these points or want to proactively work with a registered psychotherapist before you go into the holiday season, then please reach out to me and we can chat more during our free 30-minute phone consultation.
Ayan Mukherjee, RP(Q), CH