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Tired Of Those Dreaded Holiday Conversations? Here's How To Avoid Them

Dec 16, 2022

Tired Of Those Dreaded Holiday Conversations? Here's How To Avoid Them

Everyone has their holiday traditions. Maybe you and yours like to celebrate by wearing ugly sweaters, opening one present on Christmas Eve, or eating latkes until you’re so full you’re unable to operate heavy machinery safely. But for many of us, the most enduring holiday tradition is conflict. Family arguments, “friends” from back home who snark about your life, undermine-y comments from co-workers at the office holiday party, and stress that eventually manifests as an angry freakout over something minor — for a lot of us, they’re as reliably a part of the holidays as the 24-hour A Christmas Story marathon. It’s probably why, according to a 2006 survey, 58 percent of Americans said that holiday gatherings were a source of stress at least some of the time. 

But while having uncomfortable and stressful conversations at holiday gatherings may be common, it doesn’t have to. So if you’re already feeling tense about the invasive personal questions Aunt Lucy is gonna start asking after her third eggnog, read on. 

You don’t owe anyone an explanation about your life

“First, it’s important to remember that you don’t owe anyone an explanation or apology for your life choices, especially if it doesn’t affect them whatsoever,” says Steve Carleton, LCSW, CACIII, and the executive clinical director at Gallus Detox. When someone begins probing a personal topic that makes you feel less than merry, it’s OK to tell them you don’t want to discuss it, even if you think they mean well or they don’t understand why you don’t want to go there. “It is perfectly OK to respond with something like, ‘I’m not comfortable talking about this right now’ or ‘Let’s talk about something else,’” says Carleton.

If you feel like you can’t avoid the topic entirely, “it may be helpful to come up with a few short and polite responses that will provide just enough information without going into too much detail.” For example, if you know your mother will take “I don’t feel comfortable discussing my dating life” as an invitation to start a fight about how you never tell her annnnnything, instead, give her the most basic and stripped-down version — aka a version so boring that she’ll just have to move on to the next topic.

Change the subject

 “If you don’t feel comfortable setting a firm boundary, deflect to a different topic,” says Jessica Frick, LPC. Instead of bracing yourself as Cousin Bill starts bringing up your long job search/recent ex/why he hates that you let your daughter dye her hair green, change topics with a simple “Things are going great! What about you and your [other topic]?” or “There are  so many little details, I don’t want to bore you. Let’s talk about [other topic] instead.” 

You can also always jump to a safe, neutral topic like sports, TV, and weird local news (“Hey, did you hear about that rattlesnake they found in the ball dispenser at a driving range in Arizona?”). I personally am not above scanning the AP News’s “Oddities” page before heading off to an awkward holiday gathering, just so I am fully prepared to deflect any- and everything.

 

Have backup

Frick suggests bringing a friend or other loved one to the gathering who can help when family, co-workers, or whoever else starts up. “Have a discussion with your person about how you want to handle uncomfortable topics and what they can do to help,” says Frick. “Talk about how the two of you can know when enough is enough and you need to step into a different room to decompress.”

If you can’t bring anyone — because your family is fussy about who they have over, or you have one of those work holiday parties where no one is allowed to bring a guest — have someone on standby via phone so you can text them your frustrations, let them lift your spirits with positive comments, and maybe have them fake a phone call to get you out of there when it’s all finally become too much.

Know that people’s messy holiday talk is about them, not you

No matter where we look during the holidays, we’re deluged with the message that everyone else is connecting with each other on a deep, personal level 24/7. Everyone on social media is taking perfect group photos, everyone on TV is giving each other cars with giant bows on top as gifts. It’s easy to feel like you messed up if your own holidays were full of stress, anxiety, and discord instead of happy togetherness.

But you can’t control how your loved ones (or barely tolerated ones) act over the holidays. “Remember that your family has their own beliefs about your life, and they don’t have to match your own,” says Frick. This applies to anyone else in your life, too. Ultimately, their behavior is only about them and not a comment on who you are. Now go on, get another latke. You’ve certainly earned it.

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.

Photo by Nicole Michalou/ Pexels
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