In the days of yore (1963, to be exact) singer Andy Williams dubbed the holidays “the most wonderful time of the year.” But for many, that couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, surveys show that most people stress about something during the holiday season, and nearly one in four adults say their main trigger is having to see certain relatives.
“When the holidays happen, there's an extra push to feel happy and ‘normal’ around family, which internally shines a flashlight on any dysfunction,” says Ash ElDifrawi, PsyD., the co-author of The Ten Worlds: The New Psychology of Happiness. “People feel that they’re forced to pretend that they like people they don’t.” Without a healthy outlet, that tension creates the perfect breeding ground for conflict, resentment, and even all-out fights over the dinner table. Not exactly a Norman Rockwell painting.
To help you navigate these tricky times, we asked experts to weigh in with some tips for getting through the family festivities — and maybe even having a good time doing it.
Acknowledge the dread.
ElDifrawi says it’s often best to go into the holidays internally admitting: I do not like this person. And I’m allowed to not like this person — even if they’re family. I just have to get through today. The mental flip is key. It takes off the (often unconscious) pressure you may feel to get along with a difficult relative and lets you switch you focus to how to best survive the event.
Another perspective swap that can help reduce the stress you feel walking into the event: Think about it as "one dinner" in a span of hundreds throughout your life, ElDifrawi says.
Before seeing your family, take a minute to think about what they do that irritates or hurts you. Then assume they'll do all those things again this year, and make a plan for how you'll deal, suggests ElDifrawi. Say Uncle Fred has one too many and starts ranting about politics. Decide ahead of time on a course of action: pulling out your phone to distract yourself, leaving the room, changing the conversation to Netflix's new lineup.
That's not to say you should expect the worst. After all, a bad mindset can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, says ElDifrawi. In other words, if you expect your relatives to be horrible and grating, they will be. Having a plan for what you'll do when sensitive topics come up can make you feel empowered, so you can enjoy the positives of the night.
Focus on the good stuff.
Once you've admitted to yourself that you're not thrilled about seeing a few relatives, and you've made a plan for how you'll gracefully deal with any conflict, start to think positive. “Try to enter the situation thinking: We’re gonna be together, and we’re gonna eat a really good meal, and I'm going to make the best of it,” ElDifrawi says. Having a mental list of a few reasons you're excited or thankful for the dinner or holiday event —the day off work, a certain dish — can powerfully change your own attitude, explains Emeka Anyiam Ph.D., the founder and CEO of Embridge Counseling Services. And you may find that other people treat you differently when your mood is brighter.
Manage your alcohol intake.
If you already don’t get along great with your family, adding booze into the mix can only make things messier. Everyone has said something they didn't mean, or never would have said aloud otherwise, after having one too many. When you know you'll be around people who can push your buttons, it's safer not to tempt fate. That's why Harshal Kirane, MD, medical director at Wellbridge Addiction Treatment and Research, says it’s often smart to limit alcohol during times like these. Sticking to a glass or two of wine max can be a powerful tactic for staying clear-headed and fight-free.
Use any holiday downtime you have to do something you enjoy. Read a book, watch a movie, or go for a drive, a walk, or a run. You can invite your family to join you — but even if they're not interested, setting aside time for stuff you love doing will make the day feel shorter and more enjoyable.
Don’t see your family.
It's not always an easy choice, but deciding to avoid your family during the holidays can be a necessary one, Dr. Kirane says. You know your boundaries. “If those boundaries can’t be respected, whether that’s from a verbal insult or an emotional attack, it may be best to avoid being around family and seek support elsewhere until those expectations can be met.”
If this is the case ElDifrawi says you can make the best of your situation by hosting a “Friendsgiving" or just taking the day to indulge in some of your favorite self-care activities on your own.