The festive season is a wonderful time to enjoy gorgeous food, rich traditions and – of course – some much-needed family bonding.
It’s hard to beat those warm, fuzzy, nostalgia-infused feelings that come with spending time with the most important people in your life.
That is, until the moment Uncle Bill brings up that time your mother “forgot” to invite him to her birthday and suddenly it feels like Christmas should be canceled.
True: family are an integral part of what makes Christmas so special. But if you’re like 99% of the population, they’re probably an integral part of what can make it so stressful too.
So, if you’re worried about losing your cool with your family at Christmas, keep reading. Today, you’ll learn four key strategies to keep you level-headed with your family at Christmas, no matter how irritating your nearest and dearest become.
Sounds good? Let’s jump in…
1. Manage Your Expectations
The first key to successfully spending time with your family at Christmas is to manage your expectations.
And by manage, we mean lower.
See, there’s a huge amount of money pumped into marketing an image of Christmas by various companies who want to sell you stuff.
They’ll bombard you with ideals of smiling children playing amicably by the fireside, sleepy grandparents clad in festive wool sweaters and picture-perfect dinner spreads of roast turkey and ham with all the trimmings.
Plus, if you buy all the Christmas bunting and have decorations adorning all walls of your home… then you’ve set the scene for the perfect Christmas, right?
The problem is, this highly polished vision of Christmas we’re exposed to is waaaaaay out of whack with reality (for the vast majority of us, at least).
When we assume that Christmas with our family will be akin to what we see on TV, a serious gap opens up between our expectations and reality.
And in that gap lies large amounts of zen-obliterating disappointment and irritation.
If, on the other hand, we choose to expect that there may be some friction between people – that Grandma Jill probably will throw a temper tantrum and that the roast potatoes might be a little burned – then we’ll be better mentally equipped to handle what comes our way.
Put simply: we won’t lose our cool when reality smashes through the idealized images we had in our heads.
Lowering your expectations shouldn’t be mistaken for being a scrooge. It’s simply the sensible recognition that Christmas is an incredibly stressful time and that each of us, with our respective childhood baggage, are deeply susceptible to intense emotional outbursts in the presence of those we love the most.
2. Take Time For Yourself To Decompress
Looking after yourself is essential to enjoy your family time at Christmas.
Even the most extroverted and patient among us can’t deal with yet another lecture from your corporate-office-job cousin about how “there’s no money to be made in wedding photography.” Or a line of inquisition from Aunt Hilda about when you’re going to “find yourself a man”.
So, when these potentially volatile topics crop up: take a breather.
If the weather permits, get out of the house and take a walk on your own. Exercise is a wonderful antidote to the sedentary and sugar-induced stress that so often rears its head. The time alone will let you clear your head and center yourself too.
Don’t be afraid to take yourself out on a solo date. If there’s a local cafe open, why not take up residence for an hour or two each day to let any background tensions cool off? If you’re traveling home, maybe even arrange to do something with an old friend for a day.
If you can’t get out of the house then, perhaps take to your bed and bury your nose in a good book or have a little Netflix binge for an afternoon.
You’ll be amazed at how breaking up the close family contact with cooling-off periods can transform your interactions for the better.
Finally, try to get to bed at a reasonable hour each night and if you can, avoid going all-in on the booze. If there’s one thing worse than a snarky comment about ‘the damn lazy Millennials’, it’s having to listen to that with a hangover.
Remember: self-care at Christmas isn’t a selfish thing.
When done right it’s an act of generosity towards the other members of your family because you’re recognizing that to be at your best for them, you need to look after yourself first.
3. Practice Non-Reactivity
Throughout the ages many great thinkers have preached the virtues of non-reactivity; from Socrates proclaiming that it’s not events that disturb us, but our reactions to those events, to Jesus urging each of us to ‘turn the other cheek’ in the face of conflict.
What these philosophers wisely recognized is that each of us has an innate drive to deal out retribution when we feel we’ve been wronged.
They reckoned that it’s better for everyone if we’re able to overcome our ‘eye for an eye’ impulses and decide that it’s better not to dump the gravy boat on dad’s head when he starts pontificating about how ‘your ex-boyfriend was actually a really nice guy’ again.
There’s a split second when someone transgresses against you and when you react and in that tiny moment, you can choose not to take the bait. It’s a lot harder than it sounds – especially with family at Christmas – but you can do it, and it gets easier with practice.
So, if you find your muscle tension or heartbeat rising, take a few deep breaths, choose to not engage, and gently bat the issue away with another question like “Anyone for some more stuffing?”
Not only will you keep the peace, but you’ll find it’s much easier to distance yourself from and let go of your anger too.
4. Seek Common Ground
If a family friend has ever told you, “Gosh, you are growing up to be just like your mom”, then you’ll know this already, but: members of the family tend to be quite alike.
And as Psychologist Chris Logan points out, a high degree of similarity causes us to focus on the minute differences that actually do exist.
That’s why, when we’re spending time in close quarters with family, we tend to focus on what marks us out as different, rather than focus on what we have in common. And those differences can quickly become a source of annoyance and stress.
You might find your brother’s never-ending political monologues rub you the wrong way, or maybe your preppy sister’s teasing remarks about your sense of style are getting under your skin.
Instead of being keenly aware of the differences that set you apart from one another, focus on what you have in common and what brings you together.
Maybe you all root for the local baseball team, or perhaps there’s a particular neighbor who everyone loves to complain about. Make these the topics of family conversation instead and you’ll enjoy a harmony that naturally comes from commonality.
It’s ‘The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year’ – So Enjoy It!
Keeping your zen with your family at Christmas is challenging for even the most Buddha-like among us.
With vast amounts of stress, a sprinkle of repressed emotion, copious inter-generational communication and a good dash of alcohol added to the mix… it would be somewhat of a Christmas miracle if conflict didn’t arise at some point.
But armed with these four tips, it’ll be much easier for you to successfully navigate your way through the emotional storm and safely back to the bay of good cheer, family bonding and quality time spent with those who mean the most.
So, here’s to you and your family’s Christmas celebrations! From all of us here at DBMH, we hope you have a wonderful time.
P.S. Don’t forget to bring your camera along to capture lots of wonderful memories too. Depending where you are in the world, there may be interesting light around Christmas time, so it’s perfect to get practice shooting in different lighting conditions.
Connection is what it’s all about. Feel free to reach out to us with any comments or questions you might have, even if it’s only to say hello. If it wasn’t for our beautiful community, this place just wouldn’t feel the same.