Home for the Holidays, in Therapy for the New Year

We’ve got tips to help you make the most of ‘quality time’ with trying family members

For some people, the holidays are a magical time of gratitude, joyful reunions and spiritual celebrations.

Then there are the people with families.

Odds are slim that you get along perfectly with every relative DNA testing could force you to claim. So if you find yourself dreading the big dinner or gift exchange, prep yourself before you head into the holiday fray, said Amy Twiss, licensed professional counselor.

“If you notice yourself buying in to what’s going on, you have an awareness of that and can get back to your centered space,” she said. “Ask yourself, ‘Is this about me, or is it their stuff and I’m reacting to it?’ Remove yourself and put yourself back into it once you’re into a good space again.”

Pay close attention to your most accurate “wackometer” – your body. In addition to emotional cues like anxiety, dread or fear, you may have physical reactions to your thoughts about the family gathering.

“I have a lot of clients who do that (feel physically ill),” Twiss said. “That’s a big clue that you’re not doing what you need to do for you.”

To avoid bad feelings – physical and emotional – consider what kind of person you’re dealing with and the best ways to manage that personality type.

The Bully

This is an older version of the playground classic. This overbearing person needles you, puts you down or tries to intimidate you. The best way to beat him at his own game is to refuse to play.

“They payoff for them is your reaction, your escalation, your getting upset,” Twiss said. “If there’s no payoff, they’ll stop.”

The Prima Donna

This person has to be the center of attention. Whatever anyone else has achieved or suffered, she can one-up. She’s constantly steering the conversation back to her awesomeness, or maybe she’s a hypochondriac who gets off on the sympathy she receives from concerned family members. But the “ME, ME, ME” can get old and cut into catch-up time with people whose stories you actually want to hear. The good news: She can be retrained with positive reinforcement, much like a dog, Twiss said.

“When they’re not seeking attention, give them the attention,” she said. “When they are clamoring for attention, don’t give the attention.”

The Passive-Aggressive

These people can be frustrating, because they put on a false front then hold it against you when you take them at their word that everything’s fine. Instead of being honest, he puts the responsibility on you to dig for information and come up with a way to make him feel better. Healthy relationships don’t work that way, Twiss said. If this person refuses to discuss the problem or issue with you, tell him you’d be happy to discuss it if he changes his mind, then drop it.

“You can still be empathetic, but you don’t get involved in that game aspect of it,” she said. “In the future, the only other option to get what they want is to change the way they interact with you. It may not change their behavior completely, but as far as they interact with you. That may mean that they choose to not interact with you, but that’s OK.”

The Martyr

These people take the blame for everything. This often comes from a sense of over-responsibility, and these people are often care-taker, doormat types, Twiss said. She suggests poking gentle fun at their exaggerated sense of culpability, along the lines of, “You’re right, Mom. If only you’d finished everything on your plate, those kids wouldn’t be starving in Africa.”

“Bring an awareness to how ridiculous it is to bring the situation on to them,” she said. “It’s a habit. When they start thinking about the ridiculousness of it, it actually starts to change the pattern.”

Regardless of whatever specific personality types you have to contend with, don’t take it personally. View the situation as if you were watching a play rather than acting a role in it, Twiss said.

“Remind yourself during all the drama that it’s their drama, it’s not about you, then that will make a significant difference as well,” she said.

Also, be mindful of how you’re feeling and think about your response.

“When you feel your emotional state change, you can ask yourself, ‘Why am I getting upset?’ Then you’re out of reaction state,” she said. “Once you’re examining it, you can choose how you want to act.”

It all comes back to having a plan, Twiss said. Set very clear boundaries with your loved ones about what’s off limits and where you draw the line. If someone crosses that line, kindly point it out and give him a chance to make amends.

“It’s in every family -- there’s just stuff and triggers that if it gets brought up or talked about, then it sets things off,” she said. “Usually one reaction is going to make another react and then you have the chain reaction and the blow up. But if you go in with a plan, that will bring the anxiety down.”

And above all else, take care of yourself first and foremost. If you know you’ll feel bad no matter what, limit your time or just don’t go.

“That’s a really big one, actually,” Twiss said of people going to family gatherings because of a sense of obligation. “That’s people doing what they think everybody else wants versus what they need to do for them.”

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