For many, the holiday season can be a stressful time fraught with unrealistic expectations. We think this should be a perfect time, with perfect food, and respectful conversations, but this is rarely the case. When our realities don’t match our expectations, we become frustrated and tension mounts. Maybe you have an uncle who likes to ignite political debates, or your oven quit working while you have a houseful of hungry guests, or your relatives won't stop asking you what you plan to do after you finish school. If you're not sure how you're going to get through the holiday without a breakdown, it's time to establish some rules for communication that can help you survive. Remember: you can't change others, but you can change the way you react to them.
1. Validate. Tense discussions at the Thanksgiving dinner table? “I understand how you might feel that way” is a powerful preface to defending yourself. Remember, validation/acknowledgement is NOT the same thing as agreement.By definition, you validate someone's thoughts or feelings by acknowledging that they make sense and you understand where they are coming from. You don't have to agree, nor do you have to take them on as your own. Disengagement, however, is key here when others behave persistently aggressive or rude.
2. Speak about your own feelings. Don't tell other people what they feel. When you tell someone why they did something, what they should feel, or what they are thinking, you invalidate them and you increase the likelihood that they lash out with defensiveness.
3. Set clear boundaries, but remember that those boundaries are for you, not for other people. It's up to you to enforce your boundaries by limiting or ending contact with people who are disrespectful.
4. Practice rational optimism. Don't assume that people with a long history of bad behavior are going to start behaving in kind and loving ways. But don't put a negative spin on everything you hear. When you assume the best, you're less likely to lash out, and more likely to enjoy the holidays.
5. Don't be afraid to share your own feelings. If someone says or does something hurtful, don't lash out or call them names. Tell them in plain and simple language that they have said something hurtful. A great script to use is, " I felt __________ when you ________ so next time I need you to/could you ______________________________."
6. Manage your expectations. Preparing mentally ahead of time for less-than-perfect family gatherings can offset some of the disappointment you may feel this holiday season. Set realistic expectations for the day and for yourself and you will feel less frustrated.