Tips to Deal with Difficult Relatives During the Holidays

The holidays can bring the best of times and the worst of times. While many look forward to being with family, it seems everyone has that one relative (at least one) who makes things difficult. We tend to give so much power away to these challenging and sometimes toxic relatives.


Here are 7 tips for taking control when faced with difficult family members, especially during the holidays.

Tip #1:  Clearly Understand that You Control Your Happiness
No matter how unreasonable or hurtful a family member is, or has always been, you have the ability to stop letting this person take your power away. This starts with the understanding that it's possible and that you have a choice. Next comes the willingness to do whatever it takes to heal and transform, and ultimately free yourself from the prison of this person's power over you. No matter how wrong or imbalanced  your difficult relative is, you are capable of and responsible for your own way of responding, that will either empower you and bring you joy or trigger greater pain and bring you down. For many, this difficult relative or unhealthy family dynamic requires some deeper healing of the child within. Being in control of your own happiness doesn't mean going it alone. A good therapist can serve as a vital escort toward emotional healing and independence, helping you seek cures versus incur further pain, and empowering you to use whatever challenges you face as springboards for growth and inner strength. 

Taking responsibility also means looking for the bigger picture lesson or message that this difficult person is channeling to you. Otherwise you remain a victim - which is quite unpleasant - and miss a major opportunity for growth. We have a power within us beyond our wildest dreams. Maybe this difficult relative, who appears to have power over you, is actually here in your life to help you discover a new level to the power you have within. 

Tip #2: Plan Ahead
Before the doorbell rings, be proactive and come up with strategies that will help you be a good friend to yourself, that will help protect yourself from external negativity, and remind you of the strength you have within. It's good to use everything and anything that reminds you that you are okay the way you are, that you love and approve of yourself unconditionally and to trust the process, even though it feels unbearable during the present hour. This might include speaking to someone trust to customize a plan.   Many find it helpful to bring a physical reminder of that which gives you inner strength, like a positive affirmation that hits home, a quote or a prayer, a token or sentimental object. Taking care of our body and soul creates a bubble of light protecting us and helping us create emotional independence. 

Most importantly in your planning ahead, prioritize ways to take good care of yourself, be compassionate with yourself, and to be your best self with others. 

When proactively preparing for being with your relatives, establish ahead of time how you will implement the healthy boundaries you establish. For example, how you might exit early if need be, how to cut off or walk away from a conversation that makes you uncomfortable, how to make sure you limit your alcohol intake, etc. (See Tip #4 for more on setting boundaries.)

Tip #3: Let Go of Expectations
We all have a part of us who relentlessly hopes that certain people, whether that be mom or dad, brother or sister, husband or wife, will transform - and we will finally receive what we have always longed for. The lack within feels real and yet no one outside of you can fill it. While a painful process, it's a very liberating revelation to fully accept and let go of hoping someone else will change. Our mind creates what Fred Luskin, PhD calls "unenforceable rules". These rules keep you stuck without even realizing it. 

Before you meet your family this holiday, take a few moments in quiet and acknowledge what rules you try to enforce but cannot. They are simply not in your sphere of control. Like what kind of mother or brother you have. Or who your sister chose to marry. Focus on what you wish they were like. Then prepare to accept them as they are and for how they behave. Trust the bigger picture that they are in your life for a reason, a good reason. Love and accept them for who they are. Everyone matters and has value, even those who are difficult. 

Tip #4: Set Good Boundaries
It's can be very difficult emotionally to see our self as separate from the judgmental, hurtful, chaotic behavior of those around us. It's key to delineate, even visually, where your personal self ends, and another person begins. It's very difficult but so important to separate another's actions from our sense of self, not a closed heart however, but a healthy detachment from the behavior and decisions of others and what that means about who we are. Basically, most of the time, "It's not about you." Other people's behavior is actually more a reflection of them, e.g., their insecurities, fears, immaturity, brokenness, not you. We are masters of taking things personally, thinking self centrically that other people's actions, thoughts and decisions are all a reflection of what that means about our worth or how they feel about us. Most of the time this is an illusion, a distorted cognition. One of the most important boundaries to create is a strong connection with your own true voice, open of course to feedback for your own growth, but consciously guarding yourself from allowing other people's actions and words to throw you off from what you know is true about you, about your value and values, about what feels right in your core, 

Another important aspect of setting good boundaries is about time - the length of time you spend with your family and how many events you attend. During the holidays, you can limit the length of the family dinner or gathering. Don't be afraid to say no. There's no doubt about it, no matter how strong you become, it's going to be draining and toxic to be around certain negative people. So it's really important to clarify ahead of time how long you think would be wise for you to spend time with your relatives.  Also, don't be afraid to change the subject or "suddenly" need to use the restroom if things begin to get out of hand. 

What needs to become the priority is your own value within yourself, and your self-respect. The stronger your relationship is with yourself, the more you will clearly guard your light, and not let anything or anyone rob that from you. Again it's your responsibility, the power is within you. Though it's a hard process to go through, setting boundaries goes hand-in-hand with letting go of expectations, and accepting what is - even if you wish it were different.  The truth is that you don't need any one person to love or accept you, to treat you in any particular way, for you to be OK, happy, and rich with blessings.

Tip #5: Pause Before Opening Your Mouth
For the "what goes in your mouth", watch your alcohol intake. This will help the "what comes out" factor. Overall, when we respond reactively, it rarely works out well. We plant a seed that only yields bitter fruits. Allowing yourself to pause, using all your strength to wait before you speak, can save not only drama and conflict, but also your own energy and power. It feels good in the second we react, but then we can be filled with regret and that unpleasant feeling when we have lost control. Even though it can be painful to pause and not criticize or react in the moment, the pain is short-lived.  It will pass and be replaced with a deeper, lasting fulfillment resulting from the creative energy of taking control over your own impulses. No matter how reactive or obnoxious your relative else is, your goal is to not react back. Pausing allows a higher, wiser mind- activating a totally different part of our brain- to step in and respond with greater foresight into the bigger picture and long range visibility. 
Ultimately, the most important relationship is with our true self. It has Always been and always will be a battle within us, not outside of us. There's a book called The Power of Kabbalah that has a very simple yet  powerful four step proactive formula to harness and overcome our own reactive behavior. It would be wise to read these steps again and again - and practice this four step process before you enter the holidays with your family. 

Tip #6: Arrive Appreciative, Ready to Give
Focus on how you can add to the fulfillment of others. Get out of the "me, me, me" instinct. Put extra effort into appreciating what you have rather than focusing on what you lack or don't have. When focusing on what you appreciate and how you can add happiness to others, you will feel less depressed or empty, happier and more energy. You also increase your capacity to enjoy the blessings you have -and increase them. We naturally take so much for granted, the gift to see or hear or smell; having one good friend; the countless parts of our body that work well, regardless of what doesn't; the ability to grow and learn; the love we have in our lives, and on and on. Seeing the good in others,and never losing appreciation, helps us to feel full. And from there, we can enter a family gathering without looking for something from someone else to make us feel happier. We can arrive already full and happy, appreciative and ready to give and add happiness to others lives.

Tip #7: Allow Time to Recover
Let's face it, some people really hurt us and drain us. Usually those who are critical, reactive and quick to become the victim. They are still valuable souls who need our love and energy maybe the most, especially during the holiday season. So just know that you will likely be drained and need some time and self care to rejuvenate. Consider it like giving charity where you don't expect to receive anything in return- you are there to give time, money, care, patience, love- whatever the case may be. And at the same time, just know you will need to fill your chalice back up. Do your best to be at peace with this process and realize you are not a victim. You are exactly where you need to be. See yourself as choosing to give - albeit with good boundaries - of your time, love and energy.