Surviving family holidays

It’s that time of the year again. People start lining up outside psychologists’ offices, scrambling for a last-minute appointment. No, it’s not the onset of some contagious mental illness. It’s the dreaded family Christmas dinner that has people fighting for their turn on the therapist’s couch.

What’s all the angst for? A meal, a few drinks, some presents and you’re away again. What could be so bad? What’s so bad is that Christmas brings up all the family issues that are forgotten during the rest of the year. These things can easily disappear in the scramble of a hectic modern life. Those who wish to can usually avoid family get-togethers with excuses of children’s sport, work commitments and house renovations. But at Christmas time, excuses run out. It’s time to front up!

Christmas negotiations

The trouble starts with decisions about whose relatives to go to for which meal. Christmas lunch has more cachet than Christmas dinner, so who will win out? It might seem simple to take turns, but how will that work in with the brothers and sisters who will also be taking turns with their partners? The rest of your family may be getting together for lunch, but it’s your turn for dinner. How do you co-ordinate it all? People get hangover headaches weeks before the day arrives.

I have heard people complain about Christmas, stating righteously that “it’s ridiculous to make such a fuss about it all”. But in the very next breath they proceed to make a definite fuss when they can’t get plans to go the way they want. So the first rule of surviving Christmas is to keep it all in perspective: it’s just one day. You can survive the necessary compromise or mayhem. Use Boxing Day to recover and reward yourself for another Christmas notch on your belt.

The critical point with Christmas negotiations is they are bound to activate any simmering issues you have with your partner. It can take a degree in mediation to make sense of it all, hence the need for professional support. Christmas conversations between couples usually go something like this: “You do nothing to contribute to your family all year and now you make out it’s life and death if we can’t get there in time. Since when do you care so much? I see my family all the time. It means more to me.”

“Yeah, but that’s just it. You see them all the time. It’s special when I see my family.”

“Oh, please! You complain about them all the time. I make an effort to make things work with my family. Just like I am always making an effort here at home, too. Which is more than you ever do around here.”

And so there it is. The real issue begins to arise. Christmas is just the trigger point, yet it bears the burden of blame for a lot of unrelated (pun intended) difficulties. Rather than focus on the festive details, we need to deal with what is really going on. This is the first step to managing Christmas well: don’t be fooled and drive off to the family event with a load of baggage. Unpack and sort out the true issues before you go. Then you’ve only got the gifts to take with you.

Family gatherings

The torture of the Christmas gathering comes in two extremes. At one end of the spectrum are families that drink too much, have never dealt with long-term issues and by the end of the day are venting their jealousies and resentments towards each other. It’s an explosion of “home truths” that leaves everyone bloody and bruised. They all stagger off and it takes a year of delicate tiptoeing to smooth it all over. And then it’s time for the next round!

At the other extreme are families who gather only out of a sense of duty. No one actually wants to be there, no one particularly likes anyone else, but everyone’s polite and playing their Christmas “we’re a happy family having fun” roles. But there’s no real connection, just the bare bones of an empty ritual.

A client, Janice*, described the excruciating process of gift-giving her family went through. Each present was given one at a time with time taken to examine it, exclaim about its appropriateness and give effusive thanks. She longed for the chaos of a family where presents were torn open in a great flurry of fun and mayhem.

“It’s just so precious. I can’t bear it. One day I’m going to crack and just scream with frustration. I just want to say, ‘Stop. What is this? What are we doing?’ I sometimes wonder if we even like each other. And as for love … it makes me sad … I don’t know if there’s even any love there.”

Janice was distressed by the thought that the people who were supposed to be closest to her — her family — were actually so distant. The Christmas festival with its stereotypes of love and togetherness just highlighted the lack of feeling between her family members. Issues had been buried so deeply for so long (and the love buried with it) that they just didn’t know how to access any genuine feeling any more.

Janice first had to work at accessing her own feeling self and heal the damage that came from burying it for so long. As she came to understand herself, she would be able to understand and have compassion for her family. She would also have to drop the temptation to hope, expect or force things to be different. Janice might have been prepared to change, but family members are often not prepared to make the same journey. We just have to accept them as they are. But Christmas is easier if it isn’t triggering your own emotional distress. It still might be sad, but it’s easier to carry yourself through it when you have compassion and understanding.

Managing family characters

A variety of classic characters gather around the family Christmas table. These relatives can be frustrating, bemusing, tedious or even downright scary. I have heard stories about them all from clients over the years. First, there’s the negative whinger. A client, Roger, described his father as mean-spirited, pessimistic and depressed.

“He can’t stand anyone to be a success. He predicts doom and gloom everywhere. He can find a negative slant for anything. And he never listens to you. He’s too busy wallowing in his own misfortune, which he created, by the way.”

Roger had to get to a place of acceptance to be able to handle his father. He had to give up on hoping ever to be listened to. His father was living with the consequences of his own life choices and there was nothing Roger could do to change this.

A really common character is the people-pleasing fusser. While relatively harmless, they can be really annoying. They can’t just let the day flow; they need to manage it all, camouflaging insecurity and neediness beneath a cloak of generosity and effusiveness.

“This is awful to say, but my mother drives me nuts. She makes us feel mean and guilty if we reject her offers of food or gifts. But we just want to chill out and relax.” This was Darren, a mid-30s architect, speaking. He was dreading another exhausting Christmas Day. He was going to have to learn to override the guilt feeling and go ahead with what he needed to do to make the day work. Over time, his mother would get the message.

Next, there’s often a family drama queen. This person would easily slot into any typical soap script. There is always something going on in their life, usually disastrous. And if it’s not bad yet, you just know it will turn bad soon. They will need to debrief endlessly about relationship entanglements, work injustices or health scares.

Leonie had been endlessly frustrated by a sister who behaved in such a way. She had to learn not to feed her sister’s emotional fire. This means she shouldn’t feed her sister’s energy with energy of her own. So she was to give minimal responses, little eye contact and no “helpful” suggestions. Leonie realised she didn’t actually contribute by trying to help her sister, anyway, because such people have no investment in changing. All we can do is let them run out of fuel and burn themselves out. Then they may decide to help themselves.

Creepier is the born-again Christian/greenie/New Age zealot. They will approach you with fervour, wanting to tell you how you should be changing your life to fit in with God, the environment or the universe. Sandra told me about her sister-in-law, who had just found God. The concerning part was how this woman was beginning to talk to her children, filling their minds with hate for people who were different and filling their hearts with fear of hellish retribution should they go against God’s word.

Sandra had to work on strengthening her boundaries so she didn’t become infected by this woman’s negative attitudes. This didn’t mean she would tell her sister-in-law she was wrong. That would just lead to some self-righteous lecture. Instead, it was about remaining separate and unengaged with her.

Another scary character is the relative who is guaranteed to drink too much. They might start telling crude, offensive jokes that make everyone cringe. Even worse is when they begin airing family secrets or deliberately provoking people with things they know will hurt. It really degenerates when they get aggressive or abusive and cause tears or dramatic storm-outs. Everyone is left to clear up the emotional debris while they deny intended harm saying, “Lighten up — it was just a joke.”

If you have this character at your Christmas meal, remember not to engage with them. Don’t get offended or defensive. It’s just their damaged self talking. It’s not personal. Manage your own energy even in the face of their lack of self-control. Quietly say you disagree, but don’t get into arguments with them. Let their behaviour speak for itself.

Last to arrive and closely related to the drama queen will be the attention seeker. They are guaranteed to be late. Lunch has to be put on hold and proceedings interrupted as they whirl in and loudly take over the room. Simone described a sister who would already be drunk on arrival and would have had some type of car trouble getting there. The presents she gave would be more about her than the other person … how she came across the gift, the thought she put into it, the famous person she had to contact to get it. “It’s all about her. Always. I get embarrassed on her behalf that she doesn’t notice how much she goes on about herself.” The rules for handling this character are the same as for the drama queen.

What character are you?

It’s all very well to dread others’ behaviour on the day, but it’s important to own up to your own contribution to the difficulties. Check on your own motivation for going. Ask yourself, “What character am I in this family?” Here are a few possibilities:

Are you there to judge and make everyone wrong? This is the indignant, self-righteous moralist. Maybe your family members do drink too much. Maybe they do have small-minded views. Maybe they do behave immaturely. But adding your own judgement to the mix is not a positive contribution. Compassion is the answer here. Coach yourself to remind you why they are like this. There is damage or a lack of love in their lives. They are struggling human beings, just like you.

Will you be comparing everyone else’s clothes, partner, achievements or financial status? This is you as the jealous rival. Developing your own confidence and self-worth is the antidote to such an attitude. This is a long-term process, so in the meantime have some healthy self-talk going on during the day to minimise the impact of the comparisons you may be making. And own up to your jealousy. This will minimise its negative impact on you. It does more damage if it’s hidden away in your psyche.

Are you there to convince everyone of your world view? Will you be upset when yet again people won’t take it on? This is the opinionated, idealistic teenager. You are still waiting for the affirmation of others. You don’t have to be diminished by others having a different view to you. What’s it to you how the others think? You have the right to your own opinions; they have the right to theirs.

Are you there to finally be told, “We’re sorry?” This is the damaged child or perpetual victim. It’s time for this person to take responsibility for their life. Don’t give the past so much power. You can create a satisfying life wherever you started out from. You give your power away if you are counting on others to make the difference to your life.

Do you turn up at Christmas hoping to finally have everyone behave like the family you always wanted? Are you hoping it will be different? This is the naïve child who never grew up. The reality is that many family members will never change. This is just how it is. They are too damaged, too stuck or too stubborn. We have to accept the world as it is and deal with what we can change — ourselves. We have to respect others enough to leave them to their fate.

Maybe you go to the lunch to settle a few scores, to let someone have a piece of your mind. Such a person is damaged and bitter. It is healthier to sort through your own feelings first before giving anyone a psychic blast. You need to transmute your own energy before engaging with others about issues from the past. And Christmas Day is not the right time for such engagement.

Are you being a martyr and doing Christmas just for others? This type of attitude just drains you of energy and builds bitterness. It will eventually make you sick. You have to find a reason for being there for yourself. There must be something you can gain by being there. Even if you turn up out of duty, then choose to be doing so; don’t kid yourself that “other people make me do this”.

Perhaps you are scared of family members picking on you. Are you the perpetual victim or the family scapegoat? You don’t have to let this happen. While you can’t necessarily stop other people’s behaviour, you can minimise its impact on you. Affirm yourself. Don’t react to taunts. Face away from anyone treating you like this. Focus on your own gentle breathing and hum a little tune in your head to block any energy from coming in.

It helps to bring a humorous perspective to the festive proceedings. Imagine your family is the cast of some Chevy Chase Christmas movie. What would it look like? How would it play out? It can be easier to laugh at it all from this perspective. A lighthearted approach will help you survive the day and help prevent you adding to any family misery.

Christmas is about gift giving, but we don’t have to be literal about this. Our presence at the family Christmas is a gift. The quality of our presence is an even bigger contribution. If we can bring compassion and an attitude of generosity and acceptance, we add to the spirit of the day. It is our best protection from family angst and guaranteed hangover-free.

Emotional coping strategies

  • Be realistic; expect the worst.
  • Work through your own issues before you go.
  • Focus on managing your own emotional state on the day.
  • Feed difficult family members food, not your own energy.
  • Treat it as a psychological field trip. Observe the “natives” from a distance.
  • Be a compassionate observer; remember you’re not perfect, either!
  • Have your partner coach/remind/support you not to get triggered.

Practical coping strategies

  • Create an atmosphere of calm by remaining present and settled as you set up the event.
  • Stay active; get up and down from the table to disengage from the intensity of it all.
  • Don’t make eye contact with difficult members.
  • Focus on your own breath when difficult members fire up.
  • Diffuse the energy of the gathering; have it outdoors if you can.
  • Don’t concentrate the energy around a table — have a more casual barbecue where people get up and down as they please.
  • Have it in neutral, public territory, such as a restaurant.

* Names have been changed to protect confidentiality

Cynthia Hickman is a psychologist in private practise in Melbourne. T: 0417 103 018, W:

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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