The holidays are upon us once again and the dinner of all dinners looms ahead. Memories come to mind of turkey, macaroni and cheese, pre-Christmas festivities … And awkward moments. Do you miss your mama but cringe at her questions about your relationship, job, hairstyle and overall way of life? Have you considered feigning illness or working on holidays due to not wanting to deal with stress-inducing family members?
There is no shortage of information about setting boundaries and using the word “no” with toxic family members. I personally like Nedra Glover Tawwab’s books on setting boundaries to find peace. If your family is anything like mine, holding boundaries with pushy relatives is a feat and anything that even closely resembles disrespecting elders at the holidays is unfathomable.
However, you can attend the big holiday dinner and still maintain your sanity. Make a plan up front to prioritize your mental health while preserving your familial relationships. Decide ahead of time that you are going to have fun. Go into the situation with positivity and lightness. You might be surprised how well you are able to set the tone of collegiality and tact among your loved ones.
Go on and pre-determine your leaving time and stick to it. Announce as soon as you enter that you are dinner-hopping today or that you cannot stay long but want to come by, hug necks, and drop off your famous sweet potato pie.
This is more of a stretch but still a useful technique, but try to find charm and humor in ill-mannered comments. This may sound outrageously disingenuous, but you do not have to respond in full truth to everything said. Practice some lighthearted, subject-changing comebacks to inflammatory statements. If your Auntie mentions your weight increase, chuckle and say “you are always so observant Auntie, I love a good carb! Speaking of, I’ve been thinking about your dressing all week, I’m about to get another spoonful” and excuse yourself from the table.
Passive aggressive communication styles are challenging to address head on, but are easy to dodge if you are committed to remaining unbossed and unbothered this holiday season.
The rule for all major gatherings definitely applies to surviving your family events: avoid the hot button topics. Holiday dinner may not be the place to drag your super conservative parents kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Focus on complimenting the food, commenting on how big your little nephews are getting, or hearing about your cousin’s trip to Africa.
Most importantly, keep moving. I mean physically moving. Don’t be a sitting duck for your prying grandmother. Help out in the kitchen, go outside and toss the football with the kids, volunteer to go to the store and buy ice, anything to stay a moving target.
Surviving one’s family during major events can be like participating in a triathlon. Cognitive and physical preparation for entering even a mildly tense environment is exhausting.
Schedule a self-care day before and/or after the event. You don’t want the lingering memory of your holiday gathering to be of you dodging symbolic bullets across the hot buttered rolls. Get a massage the day before the family gathering or plan a “Friendsgiving” of leftovers the next day to remind you to be thankful for your chosen family.
Also, remember that you are grown now! You can stay in a hotel, come and go as you please, and opt out of conversations whenever you choose. Exercise your adulthood when necessary and sleep in a beautiful, quiet Airbnb instead of your uncle’s let-out couch with that cat that has scared you since you were a child. Insist that you don’t want to “put anybody out” and claim some respite in a place with housekeeping and a bar. You can do this!
Spending the holidays with difficult family dynamics does not have to be mentally taxing if you appropriately train for the event. Prioritize you. In all seriousness, that might mean, unfortunately, not attending. The holidays are not an excuse for you to withstand abuse of any kind.
In fact the holidays might be the right time to suggest family counseling for willing parties or in more extreme situations, decide on a safety plan for how to separate yourself from harmful loved ones. But if you are intending on attending,don’t get ready – stay ready. Get rest, hydrate and avoid as many emotional pitfalls as possible. You actually might have a better time than you imagined.