How to Manage Festive Family Frustrations

Christmas is a time for celebration and spending time with loved ones. However, the combination of different personalities, unrealistic expectations and overindulgence can create a melting pot in which underlying family conflicts emerge.

One reason conflicts arise is because we expect too much at this time of year. Christmas is often portrayed as a time of perfect family unity, conjuring images of smiling relatives gathered around a laden dinner table or exchanging gifts under the tree. The problem with high expectations is that they often lead to feelings of disappointment, failure and resentment when they are not met.

The reality is that there is no such thing as the perfect family so don’t put pressure on yourself or your relatives to be just that. Let the little things go. If somebody turns up late, makes an insensitive comment or doesn’t appreciate a thoughtful gift, don’t get hung up on it.  

Firstly, remember to be yourself. When we socialise with family it can be easy to fall back into old patterns that keep each other trapped in historic family roles. The joker is laughed at when he tries to initiate a serious conversation, the lazy one ridiculed for offering to do the dishes or the quiet one expected to keep her opinions to herself.

Being yourself might sound obvious, but it’s not necessarily an easy thing to do, especially when we’re around people who have known us a long time and know how to push our buttons. If you’re feeling tense or anxious around family over the festive season then use your values – what’s really important to you and what you want to stand for in life – to help guide your actions.

For example, if you value kindness, ask yourself “Am I being kind? Am I acting in line with my value of kindness?” and use that to help bring you back to being the person you want to be now, rather than allowing your behaviour to be dictated by other people’s actions and expectations.

We all change as we get older so it’s important to allow for personal growth within our family units. If you can do this you may find that you spend time together because you want to rather than because it’s what’s expected of you.

Secondly, think about how you respond to criticism from the people around you. Whatever form it comes in; harsh words, disapproving looks or body language; criticism can be hard to manage. Nobody likes to be criticised but how we respond to criticism can make a big difference to the impact it has on our lives. If we respond defensively, with anger or shame, criticism can seriously hold us back. On the other hand, responding to criticism calmly and objectively can help us achieve our goals and fulfil our potential.

Rather than trying to ignore criticism altogether, it’s important to work out whether criticism is constructive or destructive. When criticism is constructive it is usually delivered with compassion and raises reasonable points with the aim of helping you in some way. By comparison, destructive criticism is often unfounded and aims to undermine or hurt the person it’s aimed at. If you’re struggling to work our whether the criticism you received is constructive, ask yourself, “Is there anything I can learn from this?”

If the criticism you’re experiencing is destructive then remember this mantra: “It’s not me, it’s you.” When people use destructive criticism this usually tells you a lot more about them than the people it’s aimed at. If you find yourself on the receiving end, remind yourself this is about that person’s insecurities and difficulties, not yours. This can help you to relate to people who criticise needlessly from a more compassionate standpoint, which is a powerful tool for stopping destructive criticism from getting in your way.

Thirdly, keep track of the amount of alcohol you’re consuming. Alcohol is often free-flowing at this time of year and it can be tempting to turn to the nearest bottle to help you relax and cope with tense family situations. However alcohol is a depressant and it lowers our inhibitions. At first this makes us feel good, but this can quickly lead to behaviours that are impulsive, reactive and out of character. Drink sensibly at festive gatherings and you’ll be less likely to say or do something that you later regret.

Finally, a recent study suggests that nearly a million adults will spend Christmas alone this year.  So no matter how frustrating or difficult certain relatives are, be thankful for the family you have. After all, would Christmas really be the same without them?

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