How to Survive Family Holiday Gatherings

Stressed Out for the Holidays!


Oh, how magical to celebrate the holidays with family. Oh, waitÖ really? withÖ.family? @&#! with family?!?!?!

You donít have to guess whoís coming to dinner. You know the cast of characters well: itís the uncle who embarrassed you when you were 5, 10, 20, and counting, the sister who always had better clothes than you and always will, the brother-in-law who canít understand why you would want to work for a non-profit, and the aunt who says: ďare you still single?Ē and makes that face like sheís eaten something bad.

Itís a party. Itís a zoo. Itís your relatives. You go in with an open heart, and they do surgery.

OK, maybe itís not that bad. OK, maybe it is.

Quickly the Norman Rockwell family warmth around the holiday table degenerates into a Salvador Dali remix. The hardest part? Nobody else seems to notice but you: the proverbial knife in the back instead of in the turkey, the pie in the face rather than on the buffet. Oh how common are these mix-ups this time of year!

You emerge from these ďhappyĒ occasions demoralized or in a red-hot fury, plot your revenge, schedule an extra appointment with your shrink and talk about your family the whole way home. You are incredulous. They Ďgotcha again! ďAgain?Ē

It doesnít have to be this way for you.

What exactly are you incredulous about? People being themselves. Exactly as theyíve always been, year after year. Why is it so hard to live with the way people are? Because you canít accept it. Because you want them to be different.

Surprise! They are still the same. Surprise again! So are you.

As Albert Einstein once said, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results (HmmmÖ wonder how he got along with his family?)† This year, do yourself a favor, if you want to thrive (and not go crazy) during the holidays, give yourself a gift: expect whatís most likely to happen. If youíre wrong and things go great, all the better! But if youíre right and history repeats itself, no harm, no foul, no 19th nervous breakdown.

Three quick ideas for your cheat sheet:

  • Donít expect people to change: be pleasantly surprised if they do.
  • You donít actually need people to change. Reallyóyour life will go on whether they change or they donít. Who they are is not your problem.
  • Get the explanation right: remember that people probably arenít trying to drive you crazy, or be hurtful. They are just being themselves.

Here are some more ideas for keeping yourself safe and sane during family gatherings:

Be the Moving Part: In Your Mind

If we canít change other people, if theyíre just plain unwilling to budge, we can make the move and adjust and adapt to what we expect of them. Not to let that other person off the hook necessarily, but for ourselves. Expect the expected, or expect nothing. You had your life and everything you needed before you stepped into the gathering, and it will be waiting for you at the other side of it, too. Whatever happens in between does not change that fact.

Get Up, Stand Up: Be the Moving Part, Literally

The more something bothers you, the more you focus on it. Like chewing sounds or popping jaws, the more you notice it and decide that itís noxious, the less you are able to wrestle your attention from it. Decide itís not noxious (we donít take jackhammer or lawnmower sounds personally, itís just their nature). Get up, sit somewhere else, and focus on a new conversation.

Donít Personalize it

Yes, some people are out to get us, but often even then, their mission comes from issues that long proceed us and are like a movie being projected on your screen. You are not the only theater where that film is showing. Thereís a broad distribution. People usually are not even setting out to try to drive us crazy. Usually the people that drive us batty are just doing the best they can, stumbling carelessly, mindlessly, or maybe even because they are trying to help and think that they are doing a great service as the self-appointed emcee ďofferingĒ their humorófor free!

Itís Business, Not Pleasure

Decide that this gathering may not be the warm-fuzzy of your holiday season, it may be more the ďworkĒ portion of your holiday, and plan some other activity that you know will be more satisfying and like ďplayĒ to you. Think: I donít need this be the best night of my life. I can get my needs met elsewhere. Again, if you are wrong, and you end up enjoying yourself, what a delightful mistake youíve made.

Have Compassion: Round Up Rather Than Down

You can pretend you get along, or lament that you donít, or play the blame roulette. Itís your fault, itís their fault. OrÖ you can let it be.

Instead of wishing that person ill, imagine the reasons why someone might act that way when it is frustrating to others. Put yourself in their shoes. Maybe itís hard for them to be living this way. Maybe there are good reasons. Round up: maybe that person doesnít want to be the bad guy. Maybe itís all he knows how to do, or itís the best he can do in the moment. Throw him a rope with humor, give him the chance to do something better (or different, anything different would likely be better).

Give Rather Than Receive

If you knowing going in that youíre not likely to get your emotional needs met from this crowd, consider doing a 180. Maybe this is your moment to be generous and bring the cheer and spread it around. Youíll leave knowing that you made a contribution to the greater good.

Count on Yourself to Keep Perspective

Though you can feel that these gatherings are interminable and unbearable, remember, the night will end, and you will go home. This isnít your whole life, itís just one slice (or sliver) of a big pie: itís just your life there. Think of the many other facets of your life that you value. Maybe you have a ďchosen familyĒ: friends, coworkers, whose presence in your life you appreciate all the more, courtesy of this moment. And, remember, one bad apple donít spoil the whole bunch (girl). Maybe itís not everyone in your family who is driving you crazyómaybe itís just some of themóor more often, itís just one lone person who rubs you the wrong way. Compartmentalize. Contain the spill, and enjoy every thing and every one else around itóyouíre allowed.

Maybe these were lessons that Norman Rockwellís family understood. †And if not, well, Salvador Daliís holidays, we can imagine that they were a lot more lively and made for much more interesting conversation on the car ride home. Happy holidays to all!

©Tamar Chansky, Ph.D. 2012 A version of this previously appeared at Huffington Post.









Eternal Gardener
Eternal G5 years ago

One can opt to move to the other end of the world... it's what I did!

Dana W.
Dana W5 years ago

I grew up with a lot of aunts, uncles and cousins on both sides and married into a large family. For the most part I enjoy spending time with everyone although of course I get along better with some than others.

To avoid conflict or hurt feelings I try to say only polite or positive things to people. Just because you think it doesn't mean it has to come out of your mouth. I've also found as I've gotten older (now 53) to let stuff slide off; life is too short to hold on to anger or hurt feelings about small stuff.

Krysti Schwab
Past Member 5 years ago

stay calm breathe and smile

Richard T.
Richard T5 years ago


Vicky P.
Vicky P5 years ago

thanks for the article :)

Nadine H.
Nadine H5 years ago


Tammy D.
Tammy D5 years ago

No one has mentioned alcohol. I am sure there are many people who should not partake, but alcohol can take the edge off things. Since realising this, family functions have become less painful, or I just don't care enough to notice! Also, sometimes bringing a friend or partner can make a difference, but sometimes it can become even more stressful, depending on that relationship. Personally, I just try to avoid events, then everyone can pretend they999 miss me, but be secretly happy!

mitchell dawes
mitchell dawes5 years ago

I hate ordinary people. And crowds.

Sue H.
Sue H5 years ago

Better yet, if you know there will be conflict, don't go! Create you own no drama gathering.

Marie W.
Marie W5 years ago

Avoid toxic people.