While disagreements may be inevitable, drama is not.
It’s that time of year again when families converge into a single, and often too-confined space to commiserate…er…um…celebrate the holidays. We see the people we’ve managed to avoid most of the year. They’re the ones who have finely crafted the skill of not only hitting all of our buttons, but do it quickly and stealthily, like a finely trained ninja. Many have been practicing this art since our childhoods. It’s the family gift that keeps on giving. Merry Christmas!
It can certainly be a challenge to avoid the sibling rivalry, or the parent you perceived as never thinking you were good enough; the drunk uncle who’s been married seven times, or the aunt still pinching your cheeks…after 35 years. Then there are the hot button topics of religion, politics, equal rights, race relations and, “How do you think the president’s doing?” One friend told me that when her six siblings – a near complete demographic of all American ideologies – get together for a family function, politics and religion are off the table. Her mother simply won’t allow it.
Our families can bring out the best and worst in us. So what do we do? On one hand you love them and on the other hand you’d rather slit your own throat than spend another day with those dirty, no good, low down, sons of… Merry Christmas, indeed.
1. Avoid too much alcohol
“But wait!” You say. “Alcohol is the only way I can stand to be around them!” Here are some interesting facts. According to psychologist Joshua Gowin, over half of the murders in the U.S. are due to the influence of alcohol, as well as two-thirds of domestic violence cases. 25% of those who consume alcohol become aggressive, and do so consistently.
A glass of wine may be helpful for calming the nerves, but a bottle will set you, and everyone else, on edge. Try alternating between water, soda, and your favorite alcoholic beverage to allow your body and mind time to process the days’ events.
Personally, I am a non-drinker. As I tell my friends, I remember every stupid thing I’ve ever done. I’d prefer to eat my feelings than drink them. Eating your feelings is an option, too, if it will help you avoid creating, or being a part of a scene.
2. Be the bigger person
Sharing his Southern Missouri wisdom, my dad taught me, “You can always tell a fool, but you can’t tell ‘em much.” Arguing takes two people. The bigger person will be the one who refuses to engage.
If I’ve learned anything about hot button issues as an advocate for LGBT equality, I’ve learned that arguing and fact spewing doesn’t change anyone’s mind. Another piece of wisdom I learned from my dad came from his oft-flustered statement with someone who refused to listen to reason, “I’ve made up my mind, don’t confuse me with facts.”
According to moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, we make up our minds, not based on evidence, but intuition. We live by our beliefs and internal evolutionary moral code, most often infused in us from childhood, more than we come to conclusions on fact-based research.
So when it gets right down to it, you, as well as your related enemy, are basing most of your disagreements around a philosophy, not the Gospel truth. That being the case, and it usually is, walk away from the argument and be the bigger person.
3. Figure out why you need to be right
I’ve saved the hardest one for last. This takes some reflection and is a good idea to spend some time on it before you go. If you find yourself in endless arguments or discussions with family and friends, the problem may reside within you. So the question is, what’s driving you? What motivates you to feel like you have to prove everyone else wrong, or make them see things your way?
Several years ago I picked my daughters up from their mother’s house to drive them to school. I could tell my younger daughter was on edge. She used to get terribly chapped lips in the winter and this particular morning couldn’t find any lip balm to help. I could see in the rear view mirror that she was either going to breakdown crying or turn into the Incredible Hulk and incinerate in the back seat. “What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Well!” She yelled at the top of her lungs, “Mom took my Chap Stick because my sister LIED about it!” I ignited a fire. My second inclination was true.
“What do you mean she lied about it?” I asked calmly, and a little confused.
“Well!” She held out the vowel a little longer this time. “Mom asked whose Chap Stick it was and MY SISTER said it was HERS, but it was mine, so mom kept it and wouldn’t give it to me!”
My older daughter rolled her eyes, but being ever compliant, searched her backpack to see if there was additional Chap Stick she could give to her baby sister. “That’s not exactly what happened,” she told me quietly. “I told mom I didn’t know whose it was and that’s when things blew up.”
My younger daughter perceived that her mother and sister were conspiring against her and that her mother was playing favorites, which caused my younger daughter to explode in an uncontrolled rage of name-calling against both of them. The Chap Stick was rightfully confiscated for her attitude and disrespect.
After dropping off my older daughter I had a chance to sit in the car and talk with my younger one, who at this point had dissolved into tears. I slowly unraveled the motivation that caused the outburst at her mother’s house and the subsequent melt down in my car. She felt a life-long (albeit a short one) disconnection from her mother and sister’s relationship. She wasn’t trying to be difficult or argumentative, she just wanted validation.
Much of what drives us to be right, to get the upper hand, or to look good in front of our family and friends are passionate cries to be heard and validated. We want people to acknowledge our pain. Pain from childhood can cripple us. Pain from a parent who refuses to approve of us, or love us unconditionally can be devastating. Even if it the experience has faded from memory, the feelings often lie just below the surface. As adults, we often find ourselves functioning in the daily grind of life, seldom contemplating about how to resolve internal conflict and spending even less time on self-reflection.
So go. Enjoy the pie, the company and, hopefully, the good memories with family and friends. Disagreements are not the end of relationships, but in fact, if we’re open, can even help us be better people.
Photo – Flickr/ Anant Nath Sharma