“My family makes me crazy” is the story of many people’s lives, especially when it comes to the holidays…and this narrative often leads to family drama. If the idea of spending the entire day in close quarters with your family this Thanksgiving fills you with a sensation somewhere between dread and more dread, you’re in good company: In a recent survey, 75% of respondents admitted to reaching a point where they needed a breather during the holiday get-together, while almost 40% confessed to coming up with an excuse to make their great escape. This year, we gathered seven tips from professional drama diffusers that can help you keep the stress at bay — and make turkey day a little less tense.
1. Pinpoint your stress-relief strategy
Just thinking about spending time with relatives this season can be fraught and overwhelming — that’s why it helps to gain clarity about what you’re feeling. “For many of us it’s something specific, like, ‘I’m worried what kinds of conversations my dad is going to bring up,’” says marriage and family therapist Sarah Epstein, LMFT. “While for others, it’s the entire get-together that fills them with dread, like, ‘I feel obligated’ or ‘I feel lonelier when I’m with them.’”
Once you drill down on exactly what you’re feeling about potential family drama, ask yourself what you most need during this time. “Make a simple plan, such as, ‘I’m going to need moments to walk outside or text my friend or leave after two hours.’” Having a specific, straightforward strategy will give you back a sense of control.
2. Pick one small change
Sometimes, feeling less stressed around difficult family members takes just one small shift, assures therapist Nedra Glover Tawwab, LCSW, best-selling author of Drama Free: A Guide to Managing Unhealthy Family Relationships. “What’s one tiny thing you can do differently this holiday?” she says. “Maybe you can visit one set of relatives instead of three sets, or you might consider staying at a nearby hotel instead of with relatives like in years past in order to create a healthy distance,” she says. “Depending on your family dynamics, you typically don’t need to flip the script entirely to make a big difference in the way you feel.”
3. Outsmart family drama with healthy limits
It can be daunting to express your needs, but keeping the peace at holiday get-togethers is so much easier when everyone knows where they stand ahead of time, says Tawwab. “Be as specific as possible — for example, if you know certain relatives tend to get belligerent if they’ve had too much to drink, you might say, ‘I’m having a non-alcohol experience this holiday,’ just so they know ahead of time what’s expected, and that you aren’t going to accept any family drama.”
Or, if you’ve butted heads with family in the past because your values or political views are at odds, you might say, “I know we see things differently when it comes to X subject, but we’re not going to talk about it this holiday — I’ll have some boardgames out and we’re just going to enjoy each other’s company.”
Tawwab continues, “A lot of tensions can be remedied ahead of time with a brief conversation and making your rules of the road clear.”
4. Sidestep arguments with a rubber band
A whopping 80% of disagreements within families are “perpetual,” meaning they revolve around the same subjects over and over again, reveals psychotherapist Kimberly Key, PhD., author of Ten Keys to Staying Empowered in a Power Struggle. “Simply knowing how repetitive they are can help take the sting out of these fights.”
Awareness is the first step — the second is to break this pattern by physically snapping out of it. “Whether you put a rubber band on your wrist and gently snap it every time one of these ancient arguments rears its head or you simply snap your fingers, doing something physical like this helps your brain shift out of same-old thinking,” Key says, “so that you can more easily change the subject or walk away.”
5. Dodge the family ‘drama triangle’
When it comes to the recurring family drama or tensions within our families, research shows we often subconsciously end up playing one of three roles: victim, rescuer or persecutor, reveals Key. “It’s called the ‘drama triangle,’ the source of most fights in families, and we tend to take turns playing the different parts.” For example, your sister might complain about her low-paying job again (victim), and ask for money, which prompts you to feel like you need to give her a loan (rescuer). Meanwhile, Uncle Joe is shaming and interrogating her about why she just doesn’t quit her job already (persecutor).
This negative feedback loop ratchets up everyone’s stress — that is, until you bring awareness to it. “Just take a moment to step back and recognize if you’re falling into this pattern,” advises Key. “If you find that you are, bring compassion to yourself and to your family, by reminding yourself that we all repeat familiar cycles. Then pivot away from this dynamic using your inborn superpower: curiosity.” For example, you might ask your sister if there’s something she likes about her job or if there’s a new career path she’s passionate about taking. “Curiosity instantly broadens our perspective and invites people to lower their guard.”
In fact, tapping our natural inquisitiveness can help us thwart all manner of family drama, adds Key, who suggests stepping back a bit and looking at relatives more like a scientist, with an eye to understanding them better. “Ask yourself how you might learn something new and different about them — what kinds of questions can you ask? Do you want to know more about their hobbies or interests?” She explains that curiosity is a great antidote to emotional triggers because it spurs higher thinking in our frontal lobe. “This way, when our buttons are pushed, we can calm down more quickly and respond rationally.”
6. Show solidarity with a ‘squeeze’
Sometimes, the family drama we most dread doesn’t affect us so much as it does the person closest to us. If you’re actually looking forward to seeing relatives, but your spouse or partner is, shall we say, a little less jazzed, just acknowledge their discomfort, advises Epstein. “It happens all the time, when we marry into families with different views, values or religious beliefs,” she says. “You might say something like, ‘I really enjoy this time with my family, but I know it’s a lot for you. What do you need while we’re there?’” That could mean extending the smallest of gestures, from squeezing their hand underneath the dinner table if things get tense to deciding beforehand that you’ll stay for two hours instead of three.
This strategy works both ways: If you’re the one who tends to feel alienated or uncomfortable at these get-togethers, don’t hesitate to ask your partner ahead of the gathering that you’ll need to, say, take breaks or leave at a certain time. “Deciding what comfort looks like to you, to your partner and to both of you, signals mutual respect — that ‘we’re a unit,’ and we will be there for each other.”
7. Reward your efforts to overcome family drama
Spending time with family members who tend to get under your skin takes grace, courage and compassion. And at the end of the day, it’s important to acknowledge just that. “Decide on what you’re going to do for yourself when the gathering is over, whether that’s sipping hot cocoa and watching a Hallmark movie or calling a friend to ‘debrief’ and talk about it,” encourages Epstein, who says it’s vital to bookend our day with something to look forward to. “Even if the holiday isn’t perfect, we can make meaning and memories.”
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