You’ll thank Thomas Fiffer for this helpful guide to surviving hellish holiday dysfunction.
Mr. and Mrs. Holiday are like a dysfunctional married couple (Mother Thanksgiving and Father Christmas), happy on the surface but fraught with tension underneath.
We all have memories of holidays past, some happy, some horrid.
We all have memories of holidays past, some happy, some horrid. Because our brains tend to exaggerate when recalling events, in reality our Thanksgivings and Christmases past were neither as good nor as bad as we make them out to have been.
As we move into the season of giving and receiving, I am inclined to dispense advice, which you are free to take or leave without feeling any guilt:
1. Everyone brings his or her own anxieties to the table. These may manifest themselves directly, in statements about the actual cause of concern, or indirectly, in statements about things that concern you and are none of the speaker’s business. Try to roll with the punches and accommodate, by saying something like, “Yes, I worry about that, too,” then skillfully changing the subject.
2. False shows of interest and affection are perfectly acceptable for holiday events. You know your Aunt Millie doesn’t care much about you, but she politely asks what you have been doing. She is making an effort to relate to you, for the sake of making an annual event pleasant. You should make the same effort and engage her in conversation about herself.
Sinking into a sodden haze will only result in you saying things you will regret later and not remembering that you said them.
3. Too much alcohol spoils the fun. Many of us get so tense about seeing family, anticipating old wounds being reopened, that we hit the sauce the moment we arrive and never stop. Sinking into a sodden haze will only result in you saying things you will regret later and not remembering that you said them. There will be difficult moments, and you need to stay sharp to be able to handle them with aplomb.
4. You can make a difference. Disastrous holiday tableaux continually unfold because each person falls into his or her traditional role. If every year you flop down on the couch to watch the game and your wife criticizes you for not helping your mother, try starting things off differently by going right into the kitchen and offering your assistance. If Uncle Al starts his annual harangue about your career, try shifting gears by saying, “I know my job is not ideal, Al, but let’s talk about you. What’s new in your life?” Or, for a more direct approach, ask Uncle Al if he’d like to make some calls for you and set up some interviews, and don’t be surprised when he changes the subject.
Come up with a mantra or acronym that reminds you of all the happy elements of your life. LWGKDJ. Lovely wife, great kids, decent job.
5. Focus on the positive. Come up with a mantra or acronym that reminds you of all the happy elements of your life. LWGKDJ. Lovely wife, great kids, decent job. GHNPSH. Good health, new puppy, short commute. When things start to get ugly and you find yourself tempted either to make a cruel, saracastic comment or just remove yourself from the room, chant your mantra and let the noise around you fade into the background. Once you have reclaimed your calm, you can mentally rejoin the party.
6. Keep it short and sweet. If your family get-togethers tend to be painful, don’t prolong the agony by extending your stay. And during your visit, make plans with old friends and take some nuclear-family-only time. Go for a walk, see a movie, tour the grounds of your old school. As much as your parents or other relatives may initially take umbrage at these assertions of your personal space, they will ultimately appreciate them, as they want and need their own space, too, but may not know how to ask for it, fearing they might offend you.
7. Always, always, always, bring a small gift for your hosts, or purchase one and give it gracefully while you are there. It truly is the thought that counts.
I hope this advice is helpful … and in true dysfunctional fashion I deny all responsibility if it is not.
Thomas G. Fiffer, Senior Editor, Ethics, at The Good Men Project, is a graduate of Yale University and holds an M.A. in creative writing from the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is a professional writer, editor, speaker, and storyteller with a focus on diagnosing and healing dysfunctional relationships. You can find out more about his publications and services at Thomas G. Fiffer, and connect with him on Facebook and Twitter. His books, Why It Can't Work: Detaching From Dysfunctional Relationships to Make Room for True Love and What Is Love? A Guide for the Perplexed to Matters of the Heart are available on Amazon. Recently, Tom and his writing partner, Julia Bobkoff, founded Christmas Lake Creative, an inspired community of writers, where they offer workshops and coaching. Tom lives in Connecticut and is working on a memoir and his first novel.