Every family’s got at least one: a relative who behaves badly at holidays or who drives people crazy. Maybe it’s an uncle who drinks too much; an aunt who monopolizes conversations; a brother who never pitches in with the dishes—or anything else; a parent who asks intrusive questions; a cousin who delights in saying outrageous things to get people stirred up; or a bossy sister who micromanages (uh, this might be me…but I’m working on it!).
We’ve all got ‘em. We love them, but…they do make the holidays more stressful.
So what to do?
Look at how you get yourself worked up. What makes difficult people so stressful is that we work ourselves into a tizzy thinking about how they’re so annoying/insensitive/bossy/dramatic/selfish/whatever. It’s the tizzy that’s the problem, really. All the energy you’ve been putting into being upset is the true source of your stress.
Realize that you can’t change them. If Aunt Mabel has always talked non-stop, she’s not going to become a great listener this year, no matter how much you think she “should.” If your hints all these years haven’t gotten your brother to help with the dishes, the hints aren’t going to work this year, either.
So stop trying to change people. Stop resenting them for being who they are.
Yes, I know, much easier said than done. But it is possible. (And, ironically, stopping efforts to change people sometimes makes it easier for them to make changes on their own. But that’s a bonus when it happens; you can’t count on it.)
Take care of yourself. It’s much easier to deal with challenging situations if you’re feeling rested and healthy. Get as much sleep as possible. Be careful about how much you drink. If you’re having a long visit, get space and privacy so you don’t feel overwhelmed. (Take a walk, have a nap, stay in a hotel room, go up to bed early and read—whatever works for you.)
Predict the difficult behavior. If Cousin Joe delights in creating drama, figure he’s going to do it again this year. Speculate about how he’s going to do it this time. Will he say something politically inflammatory? sexually inappropriate? Who will be the target of his provocation? How will that person react?
When you try this, something amazing happens. Instead of being irritated, you’ll be curious about how well you guessed. And maybe rather than getting worked up about it, you’ll start to notice the dynamic playing out around the table.
Be curious. Is this person like this only with family, or also out in the world? What about your family dynamics might trigger things? If the person is equally challenging out in the world, what effect does that have on her social interactions? Does it work for him, or does he alienate people? What might her life be like?
How did the person get to be this way? Almost any difficult behavior served some function at one point. Did an attention-seeking relative struggle as a child to get attention? Is someone passive-aggressive because overt disagreements weren’t tolerated? Are adult siblings still trying to compete with one another? You may never know the antecedents, but just thinking about possibilities may help you feel more compassionate.
Focus on people’s positive attributes. It’s so easy to focus on a person’s one or two annoying characteristics that we overlook all the lovable things about them. Is the difficult person kind? funny? generous? hardworking? patient with little kids? a great cook? full of interesting ideas? Make an effort to notice and honor the wonderful attributes of everyone in your family.
Remember that they’re putting up with you, too. 🙂 We all have our quirks; we all want others to love us anyway. Love others the patient, kind way you’d like to be loved.