Family Gathering, Hold the Stress

The holiday season causes anxiety, and I will (for free) give you the secret to eliminating it.  Ok.  That’s not entirely true.  I will still give you the secret (for free), but the cause of anxiety isn’t really the holiday season.  The root of the trouble is the family gatherings.  Most of us feel a twinge of trepidation when we realize that one family member will be at our gathering.  This is the family member who creates havoc at every opportunity.  It could be Aunt Ida who brings a jug of her uber-alcoholic eggnog to Christmas… two days after cousin Joe gets out of rehab.  It could be Sister Didi, who threatens to leave in a huff because she perceives favoritism with the Christmas gifts.  It could be dear old Ma, who pitches a fit and declares Thanksgiving ruined when you arrive with canned cranberry sauce.  (She sent you great-grandma Tilly’s recipe over a month ago, for goodness’ sake!)

Dorita Family  c 1930

In my childhood years, I always wished my mother, who suffered from borderline personality disorder, would hold it together for just one night so we could have a good holiday/night out/dinner with the neighbors/day without tears.  That’s not what the universe had in store for me, and it took me years to learn how to set boundaries and find strip her of the power to ruin events.

Here’s the big secret.


“Do not try and bend the spoon.  That’s impossible.  Instead… only try to realize the truth.  There is no spoon.  Then you’ll see that it is not the spoon that bends.  It is only yourself.”

Yes.  I just quoted the Spoon Boy in The Matrix.  It’ll make sense in a second.  I promise.  When I wished for my mother to put away her crazy for just one night and let us have some peace, I was tugging and pushing at the spoon.  I was putting a whole lot of energy into her behavior… over which I had absolutely no control.  In order for me to have a sane gathering with my mother, I had to change my behavior, not hers.  Instead of hoping she wouldn’t say something incredibly racist at some point in a gathering, I had to plan how I would respond when she said something incredibly racist.  That way, I didn’t waste time with incredulity, shock, or shame.

Let me break it down.  You know the troubled person in your family.  You know what sets him off.  He knows what sets you off, too.  Perhaps it’s conscious, and perhaps it’s unconscious, but he will not allow you to get your peaceful, warm holiday event if he can possibly help it.  So…

  1. Plan for the worst.  I know it sounds cynical, but this is a life saver.  Don’t wish for her not to set the cat on fire… again.  It’s going to happen no matter how much wishing and hiding of matches you do.  Don’t expect her to hold back on bringing up that Penelope’s husband cheated on her… with her sister… who’s also present at dinner.  Don’t pray that she’ll avoid “accidentally” running over the prize-winning azaleas after being called out for re-gifting last year’s handmade scarf.  Seriously.  You won’t get your wish.  You can’t stop her behavior, so it’s not worth the psychic energy fighting it.  What you can do is plan for your reaction to it.
  2. Decide the outcome you want.  I know this seems like it would be obvious, but it’s really not.  Tons of people give the least sane person in their families the most power by neglecting to set objectives.  I’m not saying that you should be manipulative.  More to the point, you should be impervious to manipulation.  Instead of setting your sights on having a lovely Christmas, you might set an objective not to take the bait when he tries to pick a fight.  Just like your navigational software, you need to put in the direction of your destination in order to map your route.  Then you take one turn at a time.
  3. Plan your part.  Again, you’ve been a spectator (and probably a player) in this game for years.  You know the pattern, and you can interrupt it.  If you think you might lose your temper, think about your goal and what response will most likely get you there.  Then practice.  When we had to send my mother home before my sister’s wedding, I coached my sister and predicted all the shocking and/or provocative things our mother say.  When we got to the actual conversation, it was as if my mother was reading my script (I’m fluent in bat-poop crazy), and my sister did brilliantly well because she knew how to respond.
  4. Use your self-control.  If he’s itching for a fight, shrug and continue your game of Parcheesi.  If he’s yelling insults at you, offer him more asparagus.  I’m not saying to ignore him.  You can acknowledge him and what he says.  It’s all about the power you give him to determine your responses.   If you don’t take the bait, he won’t be able to reel you in.  It takes two to tango.  If you remove the fuel, the fire can’t continue.  Insert additional metaphors if you need them.  Essentially, you have power over yourself, and you best use that power to your own ends.
  5. Plan for your emotional safety.  Last year I had to spend a weekend with my sister.  This wouldn’t have been so troublesome if she hadn’t gone insane shortly after my mother’s passing, ditching me to do all the financial, legal, and grimy physical work while using the 50,000 frequent flyer miles I gave her (to come out and help with the memorial) for vacation.  (Then she criticized me for doing the work.  Insert hysterical laughter here.)  I did what anybody would have done in such a situation.  I detached from the family for several hours to run around an aircraft carrier like a 10-year-old on pixie sticks.  My sojourn on the sea helped me make it through the big dinners without incident.  With your family gathering, find the thing that will keep you grounded and/or happy and go after it (as long as it’s legal, consensual, and safe).

So there you go.  These six easy steps to a holiday gathering will not bring about peace and joy, but at least they will help avoid the more vexing realities of family drama.  If they work for you, you might benefit from reading Stop Walking on Eggshells by Paul Mason and Randi Kreger.  It’s good stuff for what ails you…  particularly if a relative with a personality disorder ails you.

Happy holidays!


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