After months of planning and weeks of listening to premature Christmas music, you are headed to your relatives for the holidays. You’ve packed your bags. You’ve finalized your travel plans, and have buried the impulse to cancel on your family, and go somewhere fun instead (Oh Hawaii, maybe one day). You are definitely going to see your relatives this holiday season because you love them, feel obligated to do so, and are a masochist.
Just because you are visiting your family, however, doesn’t mean you are going to enjoy every aspect of it. We all have family members we hate, conversations that we dread, and ticks that drive us up the wall. How do we avoid these trigger points, and focus on the fun stuff instead? How do we get through the holidays without screaming at our drunken relatives about politics? You cannot always stop your relatives from being assholes, but you can (mostly) control how you react to them.
Here’s a listicle for what to do because, you know, people love listicles, or, at least, that’s what the corporate overlords tell me.
I. Unclench Your Jaw
Sometimes — especially when family members are particularly irksome — we don’t notice how fucking tense we are. We as humans carry a lot of tension all over our bodies, and we often do it unconsciously. When it comes to the emotion of anger a lot of that tension can be held in our jaw. Many people clench their teeth when angry, and you might be doing it right now while scowling at your shit-starting relatives.
If you are about to let so-and-so have it, then might I suggest first unclenching your jaw. Literally, force yourself to yawn or sigh with an open mouth. It will help dispell some of that tension and let you think on your next step with a clearer head.
For centuries, our fight-or-flight responses have made us humans hypervigilant in stressful situations. This impulse is incredibly helpful when handling immediate, physical threats like lions or Harvey Weinstein, but not so much when dealing with cranky relatives that have lost the ability for critical thought.
Deep long breathes are beautiful tools for diffusing stress. Heavy breathing encourages a full exchange of oxygen, slows down our heartbeats, and stabilizes our blood pressure.
Before you chew out your dad for his opinions, remember to breath, then breath again, followed by more breathing.
III. Count to 10
There, I just tricked you into doing stress management. The world would be a lot better if angry people just paused, and counted to themselves every now and again.
If you don’t believe me, listen to Thomas Jefferson (a white man fellow white men have a hardon for), who famously said: “When angry, count to 10 before you speak. If very angry, a hundred.”
More recently, psychiatrist Dan Johnston has said: “The familiar technique of counting to 10 not only provides the time needed for delay but also offers a distraction from the anger-arousing event. While busily counting, we are not mentally adding fuel to the fire of anger by mulling over whatever happened.”
So yeah, unclench your jaw, take a deep breathe, and for Baby Jesus’s sake, count to 10.
IV. Establish What You Want Early on
One of the most stressful things about the holidays is just how overwhelming it all is. You have to manage the cooking of the food, the herding of the children, and, most importantly, the managing of people’s emotions.
How on Earth will you handle it all?
Well, you don’t.
It was the military strategian Frederick the Great who said (maybe) — who can tell nowadays on the Internet? — “He who defends everything defends nothing.” If you need a whiter, more privileged retake on this centuries-old concept, read this pretentious article from Entrepeuneur.com that is titled: You Can’t Do Everything, and If You Try to You’ll Do Even Less.
Say it with me now: you cannot solve all of your family’s problems in two or three days.
It is vital that you ask yourself what you want out of your relatives this holiday trip. Do you want to tackle your Grandma making racist jokes in front of you? Take over the cooking from your mom? Is it to have your relatives use your preferred pronouns? Do you want to have fun, and keep your stress levels down?
Pick one or two objectives, and try to stick with them. Things will, of course, evolve. If you go into the powderkeg that is modern, familial relations responding to every little thing, then you are going to burn out faster than your uncle’s latest get-rich-scheme.
V. Say What You Want, and Often
People definitely do not always agree (duh), but they do respond to social cues. Humans, in general, like to be agreeable with other people in their community, and this comes in handy when dealing with family members.
In the words of director David Rand of Yale’s Human Cooperation Lab: “There is a lot of evidence that cooperation is a central feature of human evolution. In the small-scale societies that our ancestors were living in, all our interactions were with people that you were going to see again and interact within the immediate future.”
Translation — humans do not like to be dicks to people they are going to see again. This facet of human nature is probably one of the reasons why people are bigger assholes online than in person. If you are not going to see someone again, then fuck being nice.
Your family, however, should want to see again. Therefore, they will usually make allowances for your wants.
If you state in person that something makes you uncomfortable, then there is a chance that they will respond to that social pressure, and shut the hell up — at the very least, in front of you.
And so, you should speak up about the things your relatives do that hurt you deeply. It might paradoxically make things more comfortable in the future.
VI. Sometimes, You Need to Shut Up and Listen
There are a lot of fundamental disagreements in the world, and maybe you are in the middle of one with grandma, but many people get into conflicts because of miscommunication. They think someone means X when they mean Y. You tell Grandma you’re a vegetarian, and she angrily thinks you want her to become a vegetarian. The best way to find out if you have a miscommunication, and not an irreconcilable political debate, is to listen.
Words mean different things to different people, and they consequently trigger different associations and experiences. When I use the word vegetarian, it could have a positive association (e.g., vegetarianism is the only way to save the planet), a negative association (e.g., vegetarians are pretentious a-holes that are always trying to convert me to vegetarianism), a neutral association (e.g., I don’t care about vegetarianism), or maybe some weird combination. Who knows? People are weird, which is a word you might have an opinion on.
“What is important,” says psychotherapist Nancy Colier, “is that we recognize and honor the limitations of language in the face of our desire to know each other, and keep all of this in the front of our consciousness.”
You may think you are using a word or phrase correctly, but if your interlocutor (i.e., the person you are talking to, because who uses the word interlocutor anymore?) doesn’t understand what you are saying, then it doesn’t matter. Someone has to understand you to validate your opinion.
Sometimes a person’s different understanding of a word is entirely ideological. Pick an “ism” at random, and you will most likely get a pretty strong reaction from people, even if that reaction is that they really don’t have an opinion.
A lot of miscommunications, however, are not this intense. It’s fun to pick on Grandma, but in this context, you might be the person unable to communicate effectively. To figure this out, you have to let your relative explain their position. Stop talking, and listen to how your relative is defining the thing you are arguing about. Ask plenty of questions to see if you truly understand their point.
You might not disagree on anything.
VII. Learn to Sit with Silence
This step is the hardest for chatty Cathy’s like myself, but sometimes it helps to say and do nothing. We are social animals who want to validate the people in our social circles, but if that behavior is, indeed, shitty, then silence might be a great, first offensive move.
Whether negotiating or arguing, silence is suggested everywhere from the business world to the business world to the business world to therapy. People, especially Westerners, are weird around silence. “The fact that English speakers are generally so awkward around silence is partly why it can be such a powerful tool,” says Sales expert Gavin Presman, when discussing its effectiveness during negotiations.
Long, purposeful silences can be felt just as powerfully as words. When paired with social shaming, they can be devastating, especially to toxic men that feel entitled to acknowledgment.
The best part, from a strategic standpoint, is that you don’t have to confront anyone directly to use silence. In fact, the person on the receiving end of your silence has to break it to inquire if something is wrong — a hurdle that decidedly places you in the advantage when dealing with assholes.
When words have failed, and a relative continues to say something dumb or hurtful, respond with nothing. Don’t laugh. Don’t refute the validity of their point. Let the silence make your point for you.
If they care about social cues, they might get the message without you having to utter a word.
VIII. Abandon the Idea that You will Win
The most frustrating part about arguing with your relatives is that they are wrong, god damn it, and you love them, and you don’t want them to go through life being wrong.
All of us have felt this way about loved ones at one point or another.
It’s tempting to try to push your loved ones towards your worldview. You can reason with them. You can stand up for yourself when disagreements go too far, but ultimately, you cannot control how other people think (not until Amazon releases those mind-control goggles).
In fact, the habit of extensively focusing on how things should or could be is commonly thought to be an unhealthy thought pattern in of itself. This is referred to by Albert Ellis — one of the founding fathers of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy — as Musts, Oughts, or Shoulds, or the practice of turning a desire, expectation, or want into a demand.
We all want our relatives to think a certain way, but it’s irrational to demand that they think a certain way. You are leaving no room in your head for family members to disagree with you, or you being wrong. That sort of psychological tyranny creates far more tension than is healthy.
Let go of the idea that you will change them.
If a family member concedes to your way of thinking, great, but it’s not something you can control.
IX. Take Regular Breaks
For many, the holidays are a period of mild to extreme stress. This stress is not because cooking a turkey or wrapping presents are unusually high stakes activities, but because of our perception of them. We are all in all the time, and we are hesitant ever to be “off.”
“We think this should be a perfect time, the food will be perfect, and our conversations will be respectful. But when our realities don’t match that, we get frustrated,” says sociologist professor Terri Orbuch.
The desire for perfection is exhausting, and although not all families have this pressure, a great deal of Americans do. The holidays are often the one time a year many people get to see their relatives, and consequently, there is pressure to maximize that time.
You are not always going to be able to downplay that perception in your head (though you should try), and you certainly cannot stop your relatives from having it, but you can temporarily remove yourself from that pressure by taking a break.
When in doubt, leave the room.
The benefits of rest have been talked about extensively in almost every environment. In general, breaks, even short ones, boost your cognitive abilities significantly. One study for workplace productivity claims that you should take a break of 17ish minute every hour (take that Monopoly! you are too long).
And so don’t be afraid to sneak in a quick nap or Internet break every hour or so. It might just give you the energy to survive the holidays.
X. Never be Afraid to Leave Early
If all these techniques fail (repeatedly), then end your stay early.
Seriously, get the hell out of there.
There is this colossal taboo in society to love your family above everything else. It was Michael J. Fox of Superman fame who famously said “Family is not an important thing. It’s everything.”
Also, see every Disney movie ever.
We love glorifying the people that share our DNA or childhoods. This logic isn’t helpful, however, when dealing with bad people.
While some families are amazing, other people have extremely shitty families, that are cruel to them. I don’t think anyone should be obligated to spend time with abusive people. If your family is physically or emotionally abusive and you have the option to leave, then don’t hang out with them this holiday season (if you want to know more, go here to find the National Domestic Violence Hotline).
Leaving is easier said than done for people in abusive relationships, especially when your finances are tied to your abuser, but it bears emphasizing that your mental health matters more than some old norm about family togetherness.
All families are difficult. Even when you don’t have severe problems with your relatives, they still can be frustrating. Your relatives know how to push your buttons, to drive you up a wall, to pull on your strings, and any other anger-based metaphors I am forgetting.
Hopefully, this listicle saved you some stress. This was a brief recap of a few tools that you can use to deal with difficult people, not just your relatives. There are many, many better resources one out there for dealing with people in stressful situations.
I personally recommend:
i. Practical Empathy: For Collaboration and Creativity in Your Work by Indi Young
ii. Persuasion: A Revolutionary Way To Influence And Persuade by Robert Cialdini
iii. Therapy (this is not a book or a show).
Learning how to deal with people is a lifelong journey that requires practice. Communication is a muscle that you strengthen over time. Anyone can tell you to listen and be more assertive. It takes years of learning and experimenting to apply it purposefully and successfully.
Congratulations, you did it! Since you made it to the end of this article, you should follow me here on Medium. I write about pop culture, politics, and feelings. Who doesn’t love feelings? You can also find me on Instagram, and if you want to help me continue doing this, then consider supporting me over at Patreon. Hope to see you around!