Guest Columnist
Taking the "Dys" Out of Your Holiday Functions
Nov 24, 2015 - 7:42:31 AM

( - Dread of family holiday get-togethers has almost become a cultural cliché. Expectations that we will enjoy sitting down for a holiday dinner with people we probably wouldn't choose to mix with (and some we frankly dislike) leave many of us looking every year for a way out.

But what if the way out is through? And what if "through" could be completely unlike what we've come to expect?

Following are some suggestions for charting a new course through our ambivalence and fears about that dreaded holiday get-together.

1) Reflect on holiday gatherings from past years. Distance can help you to understand conflicts in order to avoid repeating them. But don't review only negative memories: recall the pleasant parts of past gatherings and bring them up-preferably when everyone will hear you. Instead of looking for whom to blame, think of your family as a group of people who have their good points and their issues-like everybody else you know. Remember that we all have a back-story that has made us who we are-including you.

2) Be mindful of situations and their actors that are particularly challenging. Awareness of your own issues can make you less likely to resort to words and actions that make others uncomfortable-and which you may regret later. Instead, plan concrete actions you can take to step away from potentially overwhelming situations: step outside for a bit, spend time with children or a relative on the periphery; or go to the kitchen to see if you can help. Another helpful tool is to confide in a trusted family member with whom you can exchange sympathetic under-the-radar signals to reduce feelings of isolation and frustration.

3) When conversing with others, listen to be courteous and respectful rather than to retaliate. Your reactions don't have to be based on past conflicts. (Those aren't going to be settled at Christmas dinner anyway.) So don't come to the table clutching a list of things you expect to irritate you. Instead, try to disarm conflict rather than fighting, with diplomacy and restraint. If someone still baits you by bringing up an old conflict, counter with a smile and a shrug of your shoulders. Others at the table will silently thank you for not taking the bait.

4) Practice looking at family members as people rather than as focuses for your negative feelings. Treat them as tactfully as you would a colleague, coworker or customer. Be open to what you can learn about them beyond the ideas you already have. You'll probably be surprised by what you learn about people you think you've known all your life.

5) Keep reminding yourself that what has always been isn't what always has to be. Ask yourself what you want your-and everyone else's-holiday take-away to be, and what you can do to help make that happen. While your new approach isn't going to erase years of bad feeling (and it isn't your job to do make that happen by yourself) changing the attitude you bring to your family's dynamic can, at the very least, eliminate the emotional hangover you take home. And it might just do the same for others.

6) Having said all that, prudence requires that you arrive at your holiday gathering with tools for preventing unpleasant exchanges from becoming a scene. Try something like this: "We both know that you and I don't agree about this, can we agree to disagree? I'm enjoying being here, and we can easily talk about something else." By avoiding patronizing or invalidating the other person, you've opened the door to at least the idea of improving your relationship.

7) At the end of your time together, leave everyone with a kind word about something they contributed, whether it be food, conversation, or just a smile the two of you shared. Let them know that you value the time your family spends together (even if that particular person isn't your favorite) allowing them take from that what they will. It won't hurt either of you and it just might help both of you.

Remember that "the way it's always been" is only one choice among many.  What do you want this year? Happy Holidays!


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