Psychological Strategies To Survive Christmas With The Family
Finding the best strategies to survive Christmas with the family is no small feat. You might love your family to death, but they still know how to push every one of your buttons. From calling you out on your “lefty” political views, to cheaping out on your Secret Santa gift; it can be a real struggle.
So let’s look at the best psychological tips to survive the silly season and still be on talking terms with your relatives.
Common Christmas Struggles With The Family
Before we jump into the ways to manage family at Christmas, it’s helpful to look at some of the common struggles that tend to pop up at this time of year. These are issues that can occur for all of us. So if you notice yourself in any of the examples below, take a breath and remember that we’re all in this together.
Managing the emotions around the loss of a loved one is hard at the best of times, but it can be even harder around times of significance. Christmas is a ritual that is generally all about bringing family together. So the absence of a family member is all the more apparent. Everyone deals with grief differently, which can bring added tension if we expect people to react a certain way. Give yourself extra room around Christmas for some big feelings that you may not be used to.
Whether we like it or not, we all have a role in our family. There’s an interesting phenomenon in the family therapy research called homeostasis. The idea is that families will generally try to stay the same no matter what. If anyone tries to rock the boat by acting differently the family will try to pull them back into line.
Christmas can be a real problem for this as if you’ve grown and developed over the year and not seen much of your family, they may not be welcoming of the new you. This may come across in the form of criticism or undermining. Remember that you’ve worked hard to improve yourself and maybe your family will just need time to adjust.
One really tough aspect of Christmas is feeling alone. It might sound funny to be talking about feeling alone with your family, but this can happen easily if you’re single and feeling pressure from your family to find a partner. Don’t let the pressure push you into dating just anyone to make the family happy. Instead take care of yourself by catching up more frequently with your friends and strengthening these important relationships.
Psychological Strategies For Surviving Christmas With The Family
Choose Your Battles
Is your brother going on again about how you never agree with anything Mum says? Your first instinct is probably to go on the defensive and attack back, but where will it get you?
Families tend to have entrenched patterns of behavior after years of practice. So it’s important to try and be mindful of your own actions otherwise you might get sucked back into the same battle you’ve been having for 20 years.
Try to hold off for the really important battles. These are the ones that are really likely to have an impact on your life. If your sister starts talking back how Dad should strike you from the Last Will and Testament, that might be a battle worth fighting. If it’s just about which one of the siblings bought the best Christmas present for Nana, practice letting that one go.
Assert Your Needs
Asserting your needs at Christmas isn’t about dominating, but negotiating. Practice the assertiveness strategy, “concede but negotiate”.
This means that if you just can’t stand listening to that same Michael Bublé song one more time (and we’d support you on that), the first step is to concede. For example you could say “you know Mum, I know you love these Christmas carols”. The next step is to negotiate. So you might say “but, do you think we could try something a little more modern as well?”.
Think of this system as buttering someone up before you make your request. The can still say “no”, but it will make them more inclined to see your perspective.
Watch The Alcohol
Perhaps not so much a Christmas survival psychological strategy as it is a way to ensure your brain is still capable of implementing the tips. Alcohol is a depressant. This means that as you drink you’re slowly shutting down your brain little-by-little.
When your brain is muddled in this way you eventually start to lose your executive functioning and ability to regulate affect. So basically you can’t plan, and you’re more prone to outbursts. It doesn’t take an expert to show you that this probably isn’t going to result in a great Christmas if things are tense in the family.
Of course there’s nothing wrong with a cold beer to go along with your prawns and ham, but make sure that you go slow so that you can still be in control of your actions.
Draw Your Line In The Sand
Boundaries are one of the most important strategies when it comes to dealing with family at Christmas. Boundaries mean knowing exactly who and what you’re happy to let into your personal space, both physically and mentally. If you’ve got a particularly disruptive member of the family, boundaries are doubly important.
It’s important to work out your boundaries ahead of the day. Sit down and decide what you’re happy to put up with and how you are going to act if someone tries to ignore your boundaries. This might be something as simple as not engaging them in conversation for the day.
Whatever your decide, make sure that it’s simple and something you’re happy to implement.
Leave The Room
If someone is really pushing your buttons and you start to notice your anger rising to the same temperature as the Christmas turkey, leave the room.
It might seem rude on the surface, but so is throwing a plate when the anger boils over. The key to managing anger at Christmas is to get ahead of it. Take a moment to work out what the physiological signs of anger are for you. Do you notice yourself getting hotter? Is there a tightness in your chest?
Once you’ve worked this out then you have your cue that it’s time to leave the situation. If you’re not directly involved in a conversation then it’s probably fine just to excuse yourself. If you’re part of a heated debate, then try saying “I’m not really interested in this conversation, if it keeps getting heated I’m going to leave the room”.
Giving the other person a chance to calm down is always the best option. Plus if you can stay calm, then they start to look silly. The most important thing here, is if you say you’re going to leave the room, then leave.
Have A Clear Plan
Having a Christmas game plan is perhaps the best way to survive the family. Showing up and not knowing when you’re going to leave, who you want to talk to, or even who is driving home is a recipe for disaster.
Decide ahead of time on all these things so that you can create a structure to the day and give yourself a sense of control. At the very least agree on how long you are going to stay, so that you can focus on having a positive experience on your terms.
Watch The Leaves
Finding yourself getting really stuck on a thought or feeling while sitting down with the family to Christmas lunch? If so, it’s important to practice letting go. A great strategy for this is leaves on a stream.
This involves imagining yourself placing your emotionally charged thoughts and feelings on leaves and watching them drift by. It might seem a little silly but it can help create distance between you and the experience so that you can take charge of how you want to act.
Connect With Your Values
Take time to remind yourself about what really matters in your life. Even if it’s not family, connecting to your values can allow you to step back from the family Christmas experience and see it for what it is; just a blip on the calendar each year.
Sit down just for 5 minutes and make a list of the things that give you the most purpose in your day-to-day life. Then when Uncle Bob is going off yet again about his opinions on refugees you can remind yourself that this moment will pass and there are other things that your life is really about.
Don’t lie to the family to impress, deceive, or otherwise bamboozle them at Christmas. Sure, you might get away with it, but there’s also a really good chance you won’t.
Not only will this result in you feeling embarrassed, but it may create bigger arguments on the day. If you don’t want to talk about a particular topic just say so. The family might give you a bit of grief for avoiding the topic, but you won’t be digging a hole for yourself that could cause pain later on.
Look After Your Partner
If you’re turning up to Christmas with your partner be sure to take care of them. You’re in this together!
While we can easily fall into the trap of old family roles, it’s important to make sure that this isn’t at the cost of your partner’s safety. Allowing your partner to be quizzed, criticized, or judged is likely to make the drive home very unpleasant.
Take the time to ask your partner how they feel about going to see your family for Christmas and what they need from you in order to be able to survive the day.
Don't Engage The Know-It-All
There’s an old saying “you can be right, or you can be happy”. This connects back to choosing your battles. A lot of families have a know-it-all who holds a very high opinion of their opinion. You will never win an argument with one of these people!
Instead step back and allow them to have their say. This type of narcissistic behavior doesn’t do well with being challenged. The key is to look after yourself and leave the situation if you feel like you’re being overwhelmed by the experience. Because no matter how much you think you can out argue this type of family member, they will always have more energy than you to keep the fight going. Let go!
Gratitude is about learning to be grateful. If the family Christmas is more about surviving a war than sharing joy with your loved ones it’s can help to look outside the family for the Christmas spirit.
Getting involved with your community in a way that allows you to give something back can provide a sense of fulfillment, so that when the family is just feeling draining, you can connect with something else to give you a sense of hope.
Forget About Perfectionism
Christmas lunch is one of those times where you can feel compelled to try and live up to the perfectionist standards set by your family many years ago. But of course the truth is, if your best wasn’t good enough for the last decade, this Christmas probably won’t be any different.
Practice skills such as mindfulness and thought challenging to allow yourself to step away from the belief that everything needs to be perfect on Christmas day. Instead focus on allowing yourself the chance just to enjoy the moment.
Relationships are always hard work, and family can be the hardest. Even if we love them, surviving the family at Christmas is about having strategies that allow you to take care of yourself, while accepting the difference that make every family special.
Remember the real aim isn’t just to survive Christmas, but to make it a memorable experience that can allow you to connect with other important people in your life.