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by Katie Bailey, MA, LPC

Do you remember the classic holiday song, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”? Check out this verse from the song:

It’s the most wonderful time of the year
There’ll be much mistltoeing
And hearts will be glowing
When loved ones are near
It’s the most wonderful time of the year

Will your hearts glow when your loved ones are near? For some of us, we will have warm, fuzzy, thankful feelings with our friends and families. Others of us, not so much. How do we navigate difficult relationships and awkward conversations at holiday gatherings?

First of all, let’s make an important distinction. Some relationships are difficult, disappointing, and challenging. Other relationships are actually toxic and abusive. You absolutely can choose to not be around abusive people. These tips are for relationships that are difficult – not actually damaging to your well-being. If you think you are in a toxic relationship, please read more about abusive relationships, and reach out for help.

How do I stay sane at the holidays?

1. Set your own boundaries and stick to them. Make your own choices about where you go, how long you stay, etc. We must be able to make our own choices freely; decisions that are not dictated by fear of how others will respond, worried about disappointing someone else, or because we think we “should”. Your in-laws serve dinner at 7:30, but your kid needs to go to sleep? Make a plan so that your kid can go to bed on time. Grandma is hosting Christmas dinner, but she can’t seem to stop asking you why you are still single? Enjoy the meal gracefully then excuse yourself before dessert. Make choices that are considerate of others, but also take care of you.

2. Let others make their own choices. Just as we can set our own boundaries, we need to allow others to do the same. You might be disappointed in someone else’s choice, but as adults, we need to understand we can’t control other people. When your family all meets at your brother’s house, but your sister’s family is two hours late and leaves early, you might be frustrated; however, even if you don’t like it, your sister gets to decide her own time table. We want to make our own decisions and we need to give others the same freedom.

3. Have your “toolbox” ready. Often in my office I talk with clients about making a toolbox of things to have at the ready to help you manage your emotions. This isn’t an actual physical toolbox, but a list of things you have thought of before you are angry, upset, or anxious that you can do to help soothe you. You need to make this list BEFORE you are agitated. When we get angry, or other strong emotions, our rational brains go offline, and you will have a harder time thinking of an appropriate response. Plan ahead for difficult situations. Have a box of mints handy, and pop one in your mouth if you need to keep yourself from arguing with someone. Create a playlist on your phone of music you find calming. Make a plan with a friend to text if you need a supportive person. Stay busy helping with preparing the meal, or watching football. Think ahead of what can work for you, make a list (the notes section of your phone is great for this), and you’re ahead of the game.

4. Take a break. You absolutely can take a break from the festivities. Take a walk around the block. Run out to get a coffee. Just step outside and take some deep breaths. If you start to feel overwhelmed, get some space for a bit. If everyone keeps asking you why you aren’t pregnant yet, and you just can’t answer that one more time, step outside. If this is your first holiday grieving the loss of a loved one, go take a nap. Taking some time out might be just what you need.

5. Have a planned response to end unpleasant conversations. Of course, the joke is to avoid all topics of religion and politics. I think there is some truth to that! Inevitability, there will be an uncomfortable conversation, whatever the topic. Have a rehearsed line to extract yourself. “Thank you for sharing your thoughts with me. I will think it over.” Sometimes you might need to set a little firmer boundary, such as, “Thank you for letting me know how you feel. Since we disagree here, let’s talk about something else.” Having thought of a few lines ahead of time will make it easier for you to use them and end conversations that will only cause more hurt.

Start Setting Healthy Boundaries Today

If you think this all sounds overwhelming, and there’s no way you could do these things, we can help you. At Lime Tree Counseling, we want to see you have happy, healthy relationships. We understand real life is messy, and often complicated. Our team are experts in helping people navigate challenging relationships.

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We offer online counseling sessions for residents of Pennsylvania. If you are far from our office, or online just fits into your schedule better, please let us know! Contact us to set up a free 15 minute phone consult to get started.