While the weather seems to be unsure about it lately, the holidays are indeed upon us. Unfortunately, along with all of the blessings and joy that can come with the holiday season, the season also, paradoxically, offers its own unique set of stressors. I often have people ask me if my counseling practice slows down during the holidays due to so many people traveling. When I tell them that often people are more likely to seek out therapy around the holidays, I generally get a quick nod of understanding.
One of these seasonal stressors, for many of us, can be centered around extra time with extended family. You don't have to look far to find books on the self-help shelf dealing with the topic of families and conflict. And you don't have to ask too many people about how to deal with family conflict before you get similarly conflicting advice, even from therapists. We’re certainly not going to cover the entire topic of conflict with family in one blog entry, however there are two basic guideposts that, I think, can help us mentally and emotionally prepare for smooth(er) family interactions over the holidays.
1. The holidays really aren't the best time to bring up conflict. One of my favorite tag lines for dealing with conflict is "strike when the iron is cold." Having all your family together for a special and inherently somewhat stressful event is not an emotionally cold-iron-type of situation. When the water is already hot, it doesn’t take much for it to start boiling. Don't get me wrong, I'll be the first to recommend that you deal with your conflict head on (generally in a one-on-one situation, by the way) but how about we pick Valentine’s or Columbus day if we're really dying to deal with our family business on a holiday.
I’d recommend taking a moment to reflect on experiences of conflict that have gone reasonably well for you. Was it during an already heated or stressful moment- whether it be positive or negative stress? Was it in the presence of a lot of other people? Did the conflict occur in a setting or around a set of circumstances that rarely occur? I’m going to guess that the answer is no for at least one of those (and I didn’t even mention the eggnog). If we think about the specific factors involved in past successful conflict resolution, we might recognize that the harvest is rarely ripe for conflict at holiday gatherings.
2. One of my favorite metaphors to use in therapy centers around our expectations in relationship. It can be summed up in the statement “Don’t go to the hardware store looking for a loaf of bread.” Essentially, the wisdom in this saying is that we shouldn’t expect what someone can't/won't/hasn't ever given us. It’s simply not realistic for us or fair to that person. If you walk into the hardware store and throw a fit about there not being bread on the shelves, you'll get some deservedly weird looks and likely very little sympathy. Now this doesn't mean we should boycott all hardware stores; they have their place and are really great when you need to build or fix something. We all need hardware store-type people in our lives. But when you're hungry? Go somewhere else. Don't bring up a political hot topic with your uncle who loves to say absurd, upsetting things; don't try to get your empathy fix from the worst listener in the room. The reality is, when we do this, the unhealthy interaction which ensues is our responsibility more than theirs. After all, in that scenario, our faulty expectations and our desire to change people into someone they’re not is to blame.
Change is tough for all of us and we all know we're not perfect and neither are any of our family members. We all know- at least intellectually- that we can’t change other people. However, it is still tempting to think that we are capable of bringing about change in other people through the sheer force of our expectations via our disapproval, disappointment, and sometimes emotional punishment when someone doesn’t live up to them. In that moment, I believe we need to take a long look in the mirror and deal with what lie we’re believing about our role in our relationship with that person. If my role is ever to change or fix someone, something has gone awry for us in that relationship. We’re always better off meeting people where they are, not where we want them to be. After all, that’s usually what we want from others too, right?
The beautiful thing about assuming this posture in our relationships is that these boundaries allow us the freedom to have true, deep, meaningful relationships with those around us. Having a relationship with someone who you feel over-responsible for is daunting and generally not sustainable for long-term relationship health. But when we assume a posture with those we love that says “You may not be a bakery so you may not be able to help me when I need a shoulder to cry on. But when my car breaks down, you are the first person I know I can call and I’m grateful for you for that,” we are giving that person the freedom, relationally, to be their authentic selves with us. Isn’t that what we all, sometimes desperately, desire to receive in our relationships?
When it comes to changing our interactions with our family, we are wise to remember, "When we are no longer able to change a situation- we are challenged to change ourselves" (Frankl, 1984). The amazing part about that is we often find that when we start by changing ourselves it can make all the difference.
Frankl, V. E. (1984). Man's search for meaning: An introduction to logotherapy. New York: Simon & Schuster.