By Rose Kennedy, for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Troy Warren for CNT #Health
Even if you’re well-balanced and upbeat the rest of the year, holiday gatherings and present exchanges can bring on hurt feelings. The bizarre gift choice, the invitation that wasn’t extended or the hurtful remark made over champagne or at the cookie swap can all inflict damage or reopen old wounds.
Some of these reactions are justified, sure, but they’re never beneficial. And while it’s not possible to rewrite family history or make sweeping changes to your friend group dynamics within the days of Hanukah, Kwanzaa or Christmas, you can prep yourself to stop getting your feelings hurt.
Here are tips from communications experts, mom bloggers and family psychologists that will help you minimize feelings of rejection and draw boundaries with toxic family members this holiday season:
Do a reality check ahead of a gathering
Communications experts and mom bloggers Kristie Sigler and Mary Sterenberg from The Salt Effect recommended that holiday revelers prone to hurt feelings “rein in that Hallmark movie fantasy. Or stop that downward spiral about toxic behavior in its tracks. You already know what’s reasonable to expect. When you adjust your mindset to something that’s realistic, you’re already ahead of the game.”
Clinical psychotherapist Pat Pearson echoed that suggestion, telling the Live Happy blog expecting people to act differently than they did during Christmases past only sets you up for disappointment. “Whatever (or whoever) irritated you last year, will probably do so this year, so be prepared,” she warned.
You can still dream that things will be different, but let the idea go before you put on a scarf and head out to an event or gathering, Oprah magazine cautioned. “Before you meet your relatives this season, take a few moments to sit quietly and acknowledge what you wish they were like. Then prepare to accept them even if they behave as they have always done in the past. At best you may be surprised to find that they actually are changing, that some of your wishes have come true. At worst you’ll feel regrettably detached from your kinfolk as you watch them play out their usual psychoses.”
Prepare some positives
Ahead of interactions that usually bruise your emotions or leave you feeling rejected, “identify one positive thing or a reason to be thankful for each member of your family,” the Salt Effect recommended. “I know you may be tempted to roll your eyes and skip past this one, but …when we intentionally focus on the good in someone else, on the value of their contribution, we interact more positively.”
Minimize free time with hurtful family members
“If there is lots of unstructured time, that’s when the old dysfunction can arise,” Pearson added. Instead, she suggested planning gatherings to include watching favorite movies, playing board games or engaging in an ice-breaker activity like “encouraging everyone to share their best Christmas memory.”
Get a grip on gift-giving emotions
Dread opening presents? You’re not alone there, according to family psychologist and communications coach Elayne Savage, who lectures and writes as the Queen of Rejection. “Gift-giving is surely a huge source of disappointments, hurt feelings and misunderstandings,” she said. “It’s easy to take it personally if you don’t get what you hoped for…You could tell yourself that the gift-giver doesn’t care enough about you. After all, if they did they’d have known what you wanted for a present.”
Other triggers include watching someone’s face fall as your carefully chosen gift is revealed, spending more than your budget allows and getting a cheap present in return or giving (or receiving) a gift card that is a personal affront.
To avoid most of these negative emotions, it’s important to evaluate precisely what you want as a gift, instead of expecting people to read your mind, Savage advised. “If you don’t know, how can you expect anyone else to try to figure it out,” she explained. “Be direct about what you want.”
You can also offer a couple of gift suggestions for yourself and hope someone uses the ideas.
But even direct encouragement may not work. So you should also be prepared to handle an inappropriate or even outright insensitive gift, according to the Spruce. “Set all expectations aside and adopt a philosophy that your parents probably taught you: It’s not the gift but the thought that matters,” the publication urged. “The person may not know that the gift would trigger an unpleasant emotion.”
Ahead of an exchange, “jot down some ideas of things to say in case you receive something you don’t like,” the Spruce advised. “It could be your anticipation of receiving the perfect gift you’ve been hinting about for weeks that creates your dissatisfaction with the present, or it may be that the person is clueless when it comes to knowing what to give.”
Remember your independent identity
You can take a step towards reducing hurts by recognizing that you’re an adult who is part of many worlds now, not merely a family member. You belong to many groups and your identity is not solely defined by any single relationship,” the Salt Effect added. “You don’t have to fall back into old patterns if you want a different experience. What makes you different from the rest of your family? How have you grown or changed in ways that you feel good about? The answers to these questions will help you see yourself separately rather than wrapped up with everyone else.”
Plan ahead for conversational landmines
You’ll never be able to sidestep every potential source of emotional upheaval, but you can minimize the impact by rehearsing some healthy responses to conversations that often occur. This goes hand in hand with anticipating that the people who triggered you before probably have not altered since the last gathering, and it’s your job to anticipate having to cope with the same old same old.
“If you’re asked an uncomfortable question, how will you respond?” the Salt Effect asked. “If conversation turns to a controversial topic, what will you say? If you start to feel anxious or angry or inadequate, what will you do? Maybe you need some canned answers, or maybe you need an exit strategy. Sometimes, you just need to take deep breaths and disengage.”
The blogger has personal experience that led her to that communication strategy. “I wish I could explain how many times in my life I’ve had essentially the same conversation or argument with one family member. It’s ridiculous. Sometimes I joke that I could save us time and effort just by recording it and replaying it every time we get together. That’s laced with sarcasm of course, but honestly it just wears me out. Refusing to play along was the best decision I ever made.”
Don’t expect one holiday to heal old wounds
The holidays are not the time or place to “repair old childhood wounds,” Connie Podesta, author of “Life Would Be Easy If It Weren’t For Other People” told the Live Happy blog. “You’ve got high expectations, childhood memories we either want to duplicate or totally forget. And we have family members that literally drive us crazy, all smashed together at a table eating lots of carbs and sugar. It’s a recipe for disaster.”
Instead of diving into big conversations, Podesta recommended keeping conversation simple. “Don’t start a debate or get drawn into their drama,” she said. “If you can’t answer without wanting to lash out, then just excuse yourself from the conversation and don’t come back. Don’t apologize, defend yourself or make excuses. Just hang near the people you like and that like you. Also, don’t forget to breathe.”
Pave the way for a reconciliation next year
According to the advice column Dear Annie, forgiving someone who has hurt your feelings can be almost a gift in itself. She advised a woman whose sister had invited the whole family to a brunch without her six years ago to write some letters in an attempt to move on. “Your sister might never apologize, but you can still forgive her,” Annie explained. “Do it for your own sake. Write a letter expressing how hurt you’ve been by her actions over the last six years. Then write another letter expressing how you love her anyway. Don’t mail either of them. Treat it as a therapeutic exercise, to process your feelings and air frustrations.”
Even if the slight was intentional, Annie advised reaching out to someone like the insensitive sister. “Express how you’ve felt sad that she hasn’t been in your life much these past few years and that you’d like to change that,” she said. “Hopefully, that ice between you two will start to melt…it would be a sin to let one holiday meal ruin your relationship for the rest of your life.”
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