Family gatherings can be very painful experiences when you are going through hard things in your life. These well-meaning people who haven’t seen you in a while are probably going to ask questions about your relationship status, how your career is going, and where you are in your life. If you don’t have good answers to these questions, this can trigger feelings of failure and loss.
Here are a few do’s and don’ts for surviving family parties in a healthy way:
Keep fears in mind
If you have relatives who are hard to get along with, remember their bad behavior is often driven by their fears about themselves. If you choose to see them as scared (versus just being a jerk), you will have more compassion and will be less likely to take their comments personally.
Be sensitive about what your relatives might have experienced this last year and be careful what you say or ask. People who are struggling with something can be delicate and easy to offend. This year has been a rough year for many, so keep that in mind.
Create an emergency signal
Create an emergency hand signal and arrange with your spouse to rescue you from annoying relatives.
Be a strategic host
If you are hosting a holiday dinner, use place cards and arrange seating to keep touchy family members away from one another.
Be kind and let things go
Be patient and let unkind comments roll off. Remember, all bad behavior is a request for love. The worse the behavior, the more that person needs love and validation. Treat them with kindness, even when they don’t deserve it.
Don’t take anything personally. If someone says something mean, let it go. It’s not really about you; it’s about their fear and low self-esteem. They may feel like they have to put down others to feel good enough. Choose not to be offended and let them keep their negative energy to themselves.
Be a good listener
Ask lots of safe questions and let other people talk. Allowing another person to do the talking makes them feel valued at the deepest level. Be someone who cares enough to listen.
Avoid telling a story to top someone else’s. Let them have the spotlight and practice not needing it yourself.
Pay lots of compliments. Compliment everyone at the party. If you focus on giving validation to others, you won’t worry about yourself as much.
Be the love in the room. Be there to make others feel loved and valued. Don’t worry about whether they love you, just be there to give.
Consider not attending
If you can’t be around certain people without feeling discouraged, depressed or upset, it’s OK to decide not to attend the party at all. Start a new tradition and do something different instead. Get friends together and spend the holidays with the people you choose to be around.
Young adults would rather you didn’t ask about personal matters such as school or whether they are dating anyone. It’s better if you ask what they do for fun or what great movies they have seen lately. These topics are safer and less likely to embarrass them.
Don’t try to convert or lecture anyone on your ideas, beliefs or opinions. This party is not the right time for a debate. Obviously, don’t bring up controversial topics like politics or religion.
Drink too much
Don’t drink too much, especially if it tends to make you more confrontational or easily upset. Avoid sarcasm, correcting or criticizing anyone.
Remember, you are not responsible for other people’s happiness. If others choose to complain about the food, gossip about others, or share their woes too freely, leave the room, ignore them, or change the subject.
Give anyone the power to hurt you
Dealing with family members can be tricky because you care more about what they think than others. These are people who should love and support you, so when they don’t it hurts. Decide before your family event to trust that no one can diminish your value in any way. You have the same value as every other human soul and nothing can change that. This will make you more bulletproof.
If someone offers unsolicited advice, just smile and thank them. People often give advice to make themselves feel important too. It’s not really about you; don’t waste time being bothered by it.
When your family is hard to deal with, remember that these people are in your life for a reason: to help you become a better person. Their job in your classroom (life) journey might be to push your buttons and bring your fears and bad behavior into the light so you can work on them.
Ask yourself what dealing with your specific relatives could teach you. How could their annoying tendencies give you the perfect opportunity to practice being more loving, mature and calm? If you see them as your perfect teachers and try to use these experiences to grow and learn, you will at least feel good about yourself on the way home.
You can do this.
Coach Kim, I am in a very difficult family situation. My mother and her sister have a bad relationship, and my mom feels her sister is toxic and avoids her at family gatherings. I completely respect my mother’s decision; however, she expects me to also not have any relationship with my aunt. She says if I was loyal and loved her, then I wouldn’t have anything to do with my aunt either. This puts me in a hard spot because my aunt has always been kind to me. I don’t like confrontation and I don’t want to ignore her at family gatherings. It’s hard being caught in the middle, and no matter what I do no one wins. Thank you for any advice you can give.
The real question behind your question is: When forced to choose between doing what feels right to you and pleasing someone else (sacrificing yourself to make another person happy), what should you do?
This is a situation we all find ourselves in on a regular basis. It is the reason we need boundaries, or rules to protect us from our tendency to over give.
I’d like to give you a simple procedure to break these situations down and help you make the right choice. If there is another person involved in this situation, take a minute to answer the following questions:
Write down as many possible options as you can think of, then write an ego/fear-driven way to carry out each option and a trust/love way to do each option. Finally, cross out all the ego/fear-driven options.
I will take you through this process in your specific situation.
The fears in play
I think your mom has both fears in play. She is likely having a fear of loss issue because she is trying to protect herself from further mistreatment. She could also have fear of failure in play, which is saying she has to be right about her sister being the bad guy or she will feel inadequate or flawed. These fears cause her ego to step up to protect her.
Whenever we feel hurt or offended, our ego’s job is to create stories that make us feel safer. It often suggests stories that cast the other person as the villain so we can see ourselves as the victim.
Understanding the other person’s behavior as fear-driven will bring compassion into the picture. They aren’t messed up, broken or bad; they are just scared.
Ego tells us to hold onto our anger toward the other person or we won’t be safe; it keeps us in a defensive position and stubbornly insists on staying there to make us feel safe.
Understanding the other person’s behavior as fear-driven will bring compassion into the picture. They aren’t messed up, broken or bad; they are just scared. This is easy to see, too, because all bad behavior is driven by fear. (If you haven’t seen the truth around this yet, keep looking. It’s there)
When you see your mom is scared of failure and loss, you will also see what she needs: validation and reassurance. Your mom is afraid of mistreatment and afraid of being wrong. Her ego needs you to justify she is right in her anger because that would make her feel safer. If you can reassure her that she is loved, valued and safe in the world, that would help her.
It sounds like you have some fear of loss in play, as well. You don’t want to lose your relationship with your aunt and you don’t want to lose your relationship with your mom, either. You also don’t want to lose your agency and the right to choose behavior that is best for you. This is why the situation is causing you so much angst. You will feel better if you trust the universe will use this situation to bless and grow you, no matter what happens.
You also have every right to choose who you have relationships with, and your mom should honor that, but her fear and ego would feel safer if you would join her in anger. This isn’t fair, but you can understand why it happens. A sense of safety is our most foundational need as human beings. When we don’t feel safe, we are incapable of caring about others. Your mom is struggling to see your needs because fear keeps her overly focused on her own.
Ways to respond
As far as your options in this situation, I can see three (but notice that each option can be done two different ways, so really there are six):
Cross out options 1, 3, and 5 because they are fear-motivated and you shouldn’t make any decision for a fear reason.
Look over the love-motivated options and choose the one you feel the most capable to do or the one that feels right to you. Personally, I think option 2 or 6 are the best.
Executing your response
When you are ready to talk to your mom about this, start by asking her questions about how she is feeling about your aunt. Give her room to make her case and vent all her pain and fear. Do not agree or disagree, just validate her right to be where she is and feel how she feels. Tell her you can understand why she feels this way.
After she feels fully heard, ask if she would be willing to let you explain your decision on your own behavior. Ask her if she would honor your right to feel what you feel too.
Using mostly “I” statements, not “you” statements, explain to your mother that you must honor your truth and choose a love-motivated response to this situation. Explain that you love her, but you can’t reject or give a cold shoulder to other people. Having said that, you would never judge or condemn her for feeling what she is feeling. You honor and respect her right to be where she is, and you hope she can give you the same back.
Then, after you have spoken your truth and honored your own boundary, what she says, does, or thinks about you and your decision is not your problem. If she chooses to be mad at you, keep being loving toward her anyway. Do not let anyone else’s bad behavior stop you from being loving toward them. Stay consistently kind to everyone and, in the end, though her ego might be mad, she will respect your strength and maturity.
You can do this.
In one of your recent articles, you said, "You can usually enforce boundaries in a kind way that won't lead to conflict." My question is, how do you do that? If I try to set a healthy boundary, say no, or do what’s best for me, other people don’t like it and it definitely leads to conflict. How to do it right?
A boundary is a rule to help you love and protect yourself. Boundaries protect you from a tendency to over-give and put others' needs before your own. Many of us struggle with this because it can feel terribly selfish to make our own needs important. But it’s not selfish at all; it’s wise. Wisdom says that you must care about yourself and other people equally or you will soon find yourself empty with nothing to give anyone.
One reason people sometimes get offended by your boundaries is that they feel you don’t care about them. If you can enforce your boundary in a way that makes them feel loved, this is less likely to happen. But, you must understand that the key to doing this is managing your own inner state.
Why your inner state matters
Your inner state matters because others can pick up on your energy, and that greatly influences their reactions to you. To keep things simple, I believe there are only two inner states you can be in (every moment of every day):
The procedure below will help you get into a Trust and Love state before you enforce a boundary. This will be something you must practice, though, because it has to be authentic. You cannot fake your inner state.
If you are defensive, scared of rejection, scared of conflict or scared of the other person’s reaction, they will likely feel your fear could lose respect for you. They might also fear threatened and think they have to defend themselves.
How to exhibit Trust and Love
The method of enforcing boundaries with love all rests on you not being scared to do it. When you show up fearless and loving at the same time, people tend to respect you for your strength and love and are more likely to honor your needs.
Follow these steps to enforce a boundary from a Trust and Love state:
Change isn't easy
If you have felt like a doormat in the past, you may have taught the people around you to expect you to have no needs. They might be so used to this that they will resist when you try to find a healthier balance. You may have to explain to them that you have been too codependent in the past and need to make some changes. While they might not like the changes, they’ll need to prepare for a new, more balanced you.
If you have been too controlling, critical or selfish in the past, you may need to apologize and promise to do better at honoring others' needs too. You may need to work on letting go of a feeling of loss (Fear state) when you don’t get your way. You should also practice trusting God and the universe that whatever you get is the perfect experience for you, like it or not.
If you are dealing with someone you feel is too controlling, opinionated or selfish and often feels mistreated, he or she will be one of the hardest people to enforce boundaries with. Their fear issues (of not having what they need) may prevent them from honoring your needs, no matter how lovingly you deliver them. These people, because they are overly selfish themselves, feel mistreated if you take care of yourself. You may need to explain why this hasn't been healthy for you and ask them to support you in making changes. If they can't respect your boundaries, accept the possibility that your relationship won't work.
Your lesson in dealing with these people is don’t be affected by their behavior or reaction to your boundaries. If they are going to feel mistreated or get upset, that is their choice; it is your choice not to be there with them. You can stay in a kind, strong, trust and love state, no matter how they respond. If they create conflict, excuse yourself from the conversation until they can discuss it respectfully. Keep working on steps one and two above and don’t let the other person scare you. You are safe even in dealing with conflict. It is just a lesson and your value isn’t affected by anything they do or say.
If a person is unable to honor your boundaries, or if you are still too scared to have any, your relationship with them isn't healthy and you might consider getting some professional help. An expert therapist or coach can give you the skills and tools you need to stay balanced in trust and love.
You can do this.
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Kimberly Giles is the president and founder of Claritypoint Life Coaching and 12 SHAPES INC. She is an author and professional speaker. She was named one of the top 20 advice gurus in the country by Good Morning America in 2010. She appears regularly on local and national TV and Radio.