Our expectations of family members and a desire to have a heartwarming, joyful time with them seem to peak during holiday gatherings. Yet that’s precisely when relatives can be at their worst, replaying old grievances and interacting in incredibly unproductive ways.
To help prevent disappointment and ensure a happier season, try applying these six strategies:
1. Bury the hatchet. Nothing will chase the cheer and deepen chasms faster that engaging dysfunction. So, during the visit, do your utmost to give up trying to change anyone’s thoughts and actions.
Simply observe the goings-on rather than interact with them. Reshape your mindset and resolve not to engage with taunts or baiting comments. Aim for a spirit of forgiveness rather than assuming a warrior stance. This isn’t easy, but it’s essential if you want to free yourself from emotions that can hold you captive.
If there’s work to be done — on yourself and your relationships (and when isn’t there?) — you can undertake that effort after the holiday.
2. Hold your tongue. When it comes to our grown kids, aging parents and in-laws, we tend to reflexively blurt things out without a second thought. That can hurt someone’s feelings.
And often, there’s huge irony in the context. For example, we may comment on our adult children’s weight while serving calorie-unconscious foods we spent days preparing or we might blame them for lack of communication after they’ve flown across the country to spend time with us.
Our barbs and impatience in regard to aging parents and in-laws — from their slow movements or poor hearing to memory glitches — can cut them to the quick and turn a holiday gathering sour.
“Before you speak, let your words pass through three gates,” advised Rumi, a 13th-century Persian poet, philosopher, theologian and teacher. “At the first gate, ask yourself, ‘Is it true?’ At the second ask, ‘Is it necessary?’ At the third gate ask, ‘Is it kind?’”
To my mind, it’s a good idea to run everything we say to family members through this sage’s filter.
3. Simplify and reduce stress. In order to be able to follow steps 1 and 2, we need to be at our best — well rested and calm. Yet, we tend to stretch ourselves to our limits at holiday time by going all out.
We prep complex recipes, festoon our rooms with elaborate decorations, shape guest accommodations that rival posh hotels and fight massive holiday crowds while shopping for gifts that rack up debt and clog closets.
Most of us don’t actually have the time or energy required for all this frenetic activity and we can get totally drained before our family and friends even arrive. To make matters worse, we often hold ourselves to unrealistic standards of perfection when getting things ready for the holiday and add a sense of failure and self-judgment to the already burdensome load we’re carrying.
So, this season, try another approach. Start by distinguishing what’s really essential from what’s not and draw a line in the sand. Eliminate anything from your to-do list that isn’t a must-do. Then, get help accomplishing what remains and threatens to leave you feeling exhausted, stressed or resentful. If you can’t get the support you need for your task, don’t take it on.
Divvy up and delegate responsibilities, from shopping and cooking to setting the table and cleaning up. Also, consider making the holiday meal a potluck and give yourself permission to buy prepared foods.
We can all take cues from youngsters, who seem to have an instinctive ability to prioritize fun over extreme effort. When the older kids stage a ‘friendsgiving’ the host makes the main dish, sets the table and provides ice; virtually every other chore and food item is “outsourced” to the guests.
4. Steal moments of relaxation. Holidays are supposed to include down time, so build breaks into your schedule before, during and after your gatherings. Book alone time and leisurely walks and don’t skip your established exercise or meditation routines; they’re even more vital during high-stress, high-calorie periods.
5. Reinvent your traditions. How about staging a gathering in a new place to set family festivities and dynamics on a fresh footing? By selecting a locale that’s reasonably convenient for your crowd and taking advantage of special offerings there, you can diminish the fraught feeling of home and boost the fun quotient.
You might also give some thought to skipping group gatherings this year and going it alone. Head for the movies on your own at holiday time or travel solo to a far-flung or nearby destination. Experiencing unfamiliar sights, sounds and people can be a powerful and joyful way to rejuvenate.
Volunteering to fund, serve or deliver holiday meals is another way to circumvent family nonsense and uplift yourself and others. Contact local food banks, soup kitchens, shelters and religious institutions to see how you can help. Volunteermatch.org lists a host of Thanksgiving volunteer opportunities.
6. Revamp gift giving. Consider donating to a cause on behalf of your loved ones and suggesting that they do the same instead of giving one another material items.
Another easy strategy that can make fewer demands on your time and cut back on household clutter is to purchase “experience” gifts online: theater, concert and movie tickets, special restaurant gift cards, spa treatments, adventure trips and the like.
Remember, ‘tis supposed to be the season to be jolly and grateful. You’ll improve your odds if you put a concrete action plan into motion.