Have you ever sat at a beautifully decorated dinner table, surrounded by delicious food and all of your loved ones, thinking “Who are these terrible people and how am I related to them”?
Welcome to the holidays — a month-long stretch that’s hyped as the epitome of family togetherness and joy, but is just as often an emotional slog that sees us getting baited into pointless arguments, stomping around like an angry teenager, and feverishly googling “fake your own death + cost” every night after dinner.
But while holiday fights with your family over something that happened in 1990 may feel inevitable, Daniel Smith, a Brooklyn, NY-based psychotherapist and author of Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety, thinks that isn’t quite true. With some planning and self-love, we can draw strong boundaries — and even if they don’t prevent the fights entirely, they can help us protect ourselves.
Seriously, though. Why do our families stress us out so much during the holidays?
So what creates all this familial chaos? Is it some kind of reaction to the tryptophan in the turkey? Smith says there are a lot of factors in play, including having more people in the house, feeling trapped by cold weather, and the weight of cultural expectations about how the holidays should look.
“It's supposed to be idyllic and it's supposed to be decorative,” says Smith. “And so there's often some comparison that happens that makes us feel unusual.”
But the biggest thing that makes us have the same fights with our families over and over is just that we’re, well, used to them.
“I think the big thing here is that there are no stronger patterns than those that were created when we were kids,” says Smith. So when you sit at the family dinner table and get the same comments about your career or body or choice in partners that you’ve been getting for decades, you might feel like “you have no choice but to answer in the way that you've always answered,” says Smith.
So what can you do to, you know, not immediately go from cutting the turkey to yelling “I never asked to be born!” at an 80-year-old man wearing prescription orthotic shoes?
Plan ahead (including exit strategies)
And if the same stuff goes down every year — a fight about Cousin Ed’s drinking, an off-hand comment about your pants size that will live rent-free in your head for the next 12 months — plan ahead. Consider what you’re able to handle, and what triggers you and sets you off. Knowing the answers to these questions, Smith cautions, is “not going to make the problems go away. But the key is simply to increase your mindfulness, to prepare yourself a little bit.”
Thinking about your triggers in advance might keep you from feeling so surprised by them.
This planning can also include planning how to dip out if things get too heated. You can leave for a walk, call a friend, or even just furtively play Tetris on your phone in the bathroom (my go-to move).
If you can’t leave, say “no”
And if physically leaving is impossible (or just way more trouble than it’s worth), “remember that you actually have the freedom to say no,” says Smith.
“Families create these patterns that make us feel like we're under someone else's control. But that's an illusion,” says Smith. “You're free to say no and you're free to respond in a different way from how you might have responded earlier.”
Smith suggests using “I” statements — "I'm not comfortable talking about that” or “I feel uncomfortable when people ask me that” — because they’re more effective than accusing, blaming, or otherwise Hulking out.
“That person may push and push and push, but it's because they're trying to stay in the pattern,” says Smith. You can’t control what they do, but you can control how you respond.
Feel compassion for your past and present selves
Yes, it can feel totally embarrassing to realize you have allowed yourself to be drawn back into old family arguments you were done with years ago. But criticizing yourself isn’t likely to help. Instead, Smith suggests recognizing that our younger selves still exist within us, and to look at them with compassion, rather than judgment.
“We can say, ‘Oh, I see that part of me, and I understand it, because that 14-year-old had a different relationship with my father and didn't know what I know now,’” says Smith.
And if you blow up anyway, remember that “there is no perfect here,” says Smith. “You still might lose your temper or act petulant or blush in a way that you find embarrassing; whatever it is, you have to have compassion for yourself.”
If you’re struggling with how to do that, try to remember: “These are the deepest influences on us, and these are influences that were formed when we were a lot less, had a lot less power and control than we have now,” says Smith. “So go easy on yourself, make the effort, and then just be proud of yourself for trying.”
By Gabrielle Moss
Gabrielle Moss is the editor at Stripes. She's the author of Paperback Crush: The Totally Radical History of '80s and '90s Teen Fiction. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, Slate, GQ, Buzzfeed, Marie Claire and elsewhere.