Dreading Holiday Gatherings?

by Patrick J. Harbula

Are you getting together with members of your family of origin for the holidays this year? Did you come from a family that was dysfunctional in any way? Do you have any ongoing rifts between you and one or more of your family members? If you answered no to any of these questions, then disregard this column. If you answered yes to all of them, then read these helpful tips and make this the best holiday season ever.

1. Expect things to be different: I don’t mean that you should get caught up or attached to an expectation of your more challenging relatives changing completely, but simply going into your holiday get-together embracing the possibility that if you change your beliefs about your relatives that they may respond differently to you. We tend to create ongoing relationship friction by expecting people to be the same as they were years ago when we knew them best. Everyone grows (at least to some degree), and if we are open to experiencing the changes in others, we change our expectation. I have had countless clients and students have absolutely miraculous results practicing this simple strategy. They couldn’t believe how much those other people had changed (in reality it was their own change that inspired a different interaction with their loved ones).

2. Respond differently: If your family members treat you the same as they have in the past, even after embracing an alternate expectation, respond differently than you have in the past. For example: If your mother or father start to push your childhood buttons by lecturing, criticizing, or somehow making you feel embarrassed, remember that they aren’t only your parents, they are people with insecurities and fears just like everyone else. We will not be treated by our parents (or anyone else for that matter) as adults until we stop reacting the way we did when we were children. If you feel criticized you could communicate that without getting into the defensiveness. Or if you have particularly forceful and relentless relatives, simply say, “I would prefer to talk about something more positive.” Don’t give people the opportunity to draw you into old dynamics that you are no longer willing to participate in.

3. Decide to be proactive: When we react negatively to the faults of others, we only trigger stronger expression of those faults. When we recognize that we can be proactive rather than reactive, then we help to encourage the strengths in others. When we respond from our strongest, most compassionate selves, we recognize the weaknesses in everyone as an opportunity to shed light on those imperfections. Great teachers and compassionate leaders see imperfection as an opportunity to serve rather than something to turn away from. We can emulate such teachers as Mother Theresa and Gandhi by being proactive.

4. Visualize what you want: We can greatly affect the outcome of any event or experience by having a clear image of what we want to occur. This is a simple but profound technique used by athletes and successful men and women in every field. Everything that is created or realized begins as an image (conscious or unconscious). The clearer and brighter your image, the greater affect it will have on the outcome. Simply sit down, close your eyes and visualize the ideal holiday celebration. If images don’t come easy to you, then imagine what the ideal holiday would feel like. Include your sense of smell and touch as well, which is especially helpful with holidays involving great food.

5. Take responsibility: A great deal of conflict results from the practice of blaming others. While we can’t be responsible for everything that occurs in a relationship, we can take responsibility four our side of any conflict and for our response to what is not our responsibility. Many people don’t want to take responsibility because they confuse it with self-blame. They don’t want to be wrong because they tend to self-criticize. Of course we won’t take responsibility if it feels so lousy. Blaming throws power away. Responsibility generates power from within. Blame denotes fault. Responsibility denotes responsible action. It means that with the understanding I now have, I will do everything I can to make certain that this action or occurrence doesn’t happen again. It doesn’t mean that I will feel bad and guilty for what I have done in the past.

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Copyright 2006 Patrick J. Harbula