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How to deal with difficult relatives: a therapist's guide

Everyone has someone in their family they can’t stand — the drunk uncle who never stops making offensive jokes, the mother-in-law who wants to know when you’ll start breeding, or the conservative, homophobic cousin. If you don’t have any of these delightful folks in your family, well...I’m single. Call me? All kidding aside, family gatherings can be anything from minor irritations to relapse-inducing traumas with a side of canned cran. Here are some strategies for dealing with family you hate during the holidays from my favorite mental health experts.

Be prepared

Spending holidays with relatives that you don’t really connect with will require some pre-game emotional prepping. The first thing you need to ask yourself is what you want out of the experience. “If you want to spend time with people you love and it happens to come along with people you hate, then there’s nothing wrong with avoiding the people you hate and only spending time with the people who make you feel good,” says Dulcinea Pitagora, a NYC-based therapist. In other words, you don’t have to talk to anyone you don’t want to talk to. Your therapist says so. Or at least, a therapist says so.

If you are trying to resolve something during the holidays, be extra prepared. “I would suggest the opposite of avoiding people you need to resolve issues with,” Pitagora says. “Schedule time for a private conversation with them or agree on boundaries for the time you’re spending together. It wouldn’t hurt to have someone who’s neutral to act as a buffer during the conversation.” So, if you need to download with your aunt about a long-standing dispute, make sure you set it up in advance.

Make sure you figure out your own boundaries beforehand and plan an exit strategies in case those boundaries get pushed. “One of the things that makes family gatherings challenging is that we can’t control how others will respond to us,” says Matthew Mutchler, psychotherapist and associate professor of counseling psychology at Delaware Valley University. “To best gird yourself, you should focus on the things you can control. Is there a relatively safe space you can go if people get to be too much for you? Outside? To your old bedroom? Identify somewhere you can go if you need a break.”

You can also hash out rhetorical conversations in advance, suggests Stefani Goerlich, a Detroit-based psychotherapist. “One of the most important things you can do is rehearse some responses that you can deploy in a conversation to diffuse a situation or to reinforce your boundaries,” she says.

Mutchler agrees, adding that you can rehearse with a partner or anyone you might be bringing along for the holiday rollercoaster. “If you’re going with a partner, prepare with them,” he suggests. “Work out some signals you can send to help stay out of trouble.” If that sounds a little James Bond, well, maybe it will help to think of yourself as on a mission to protect your integrity instead of attending the inevitable funeral of your own self-esteem.

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It’s also important not to assume that everything is going to be a disaster. “Do your best to not anticipate a negative interaction,” says Curtis Reisinger, an NYC-based psychologist and assistant professor at Donald and Barbara Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra University. “Pause before starting a conversation and quietly wish the other person well. This shifts your mindset from self-protective to gracious,” he says, and adds that your family members may be on auto-pilot, but you don’t have to be. “Starting an interaction with a smile and a handshake gives you the emotional upper hand even if the other person does not reciprocate.”

Mutchler also suggests trying to find something good in the family event, if you can. I have tried this, and found it enormously life-affirming. Three years ago, I spent the holidays in Orange County with 15 of the most uptight people on the planet (hi fam). My aunt has nine kinds of salt laid out in artisanal dishes on her stove. Seriously. I spent an hour listening to her wax pretentious about where each came from and the exotic trips she took to acquire them. This was all delivered with a subtle layer of shaming dubiousness that I didn’t know shit about salt and the less subtle intimation that I couldn’t afford to travel because I don’t have a real job. I looked everywhere and could find not a lick of goodness. I was getting real freaked.

And then I realized: it’s in the salt. Say what you want about my aunt’s emotional intelligence, the woman can plate an overpriced mineral. My family and I may hate every other thing about one another, but we all love beautiful things and the stories behind them.

Take charge of the conversation if things get awkward

So, you’re spooning mountains of mashed onto your plate, innocently attempting to carb-load, and someone says something that rubs you the wrong way. What do you do?

“One strategy can be to play dumb when someone says something insulting or offensive. Ask them to explain the comment. Often, when people are forced to extrapolate on their derogatory statements, it takes the wind out of them,” says Goerlich. “Insulting comments thrive when they are fed with laughter or nods of agreement. Someone making an abusive statement will rarely feel comfortable expanding upon their thought process.” This is, frankly, my favorite suggestion, and Mutchler also suggests that feigning ignorance is an option. When in Rome, just play dumb.

Pitagora suggests checking in with your emotional bandwidth and so that you can respond accordingly if someone messes with you. “If you have all of the energy and support and you feel up to it, you could let the person know how you feel,” she says. “You can tell them that you’d like them to either apologize, not say that again, or change the subject. If you have less energy, you could have some scripted phrases to interrupt the conversation and change its course. It could be related to the topic or completely unrelated.”

So if you have the motivation, go ahead and call people out. If you don’t, change the subject. And if you’re exhausted? Pitagora says it’s okay to bolt. You can either take a break or leave the scene entirely. “You don’t have to deal with people saying things that hurt you,” she affirms.

Set up an aftercare plan

You may think that once you’ve escaped whatever your version of the Griswold’s family disaster is that you’re fine, but that’s not my experience. I remember several holiday conflicts with partners that started after the stressful event was already over. In those cases, I felt very emotionally activated, a little lit, and one hundred percent ready to rumble.

You have to respect the transition time that your nervous system needs to move from intense stress to rest, says Reisinger, and decompress. “The main thing is to break out of the negative mindset,” he says. “Shifting your physiology to incompatible positive soothing or energizing emotions can be a solution.” Taking a brisk walk or jog, watching a comedy, or doing anything that shifts your nervous system from flight or fight can help you rest and digest. Doing something physiologically challenging, suggests Resiginger, can help change your mental state.

Goerlich adds that you might want to set up a post-holiday processing sesh with a close friend. “Talk to someone about what happened and how it made you feel,” she says. “Ideally, this would be someone who understands the abrasive family member and can offer reassurance and validation.” Goerlich also notes that you have to do something to change the tone. Plan something fun. “Balance out the stress of interacting with difficult family members by boosting your dopamine output afterwards,” she says.

Look, being a queer, borderline inappropriate, know-it-all weirdo is basically my job, so if I can get through the holidays with my homophobic Trumper fam, then you can, too. Go in with a plan, control the conversation (at least your end of it), and chill out after. You’ve got this.