4 Ways to Keep the Peace During Family Gatherings

Though some may look forward to gathering for the holiday season, others feel dread when revisiting the tensions of holiday celebrations past. We may have memories of heated discussions, forced chitchat, and awkward moments spent with parents, in-laws, siblings — and even friends with whom we no longer feel a connection. No matter the reason, we have the choice to take a fresh approach to a familiar holiday story. Bringing in our leftover feelings from the past does not serve us or anyone else.

Most people “serve up leftovers” because they don’t have closure about disagreements from the past. Either healthy communications broke down, or were never there. The longer we go without closure, the more likely unresolved feelings will ferment into a toxic brew that can lead us to assume the worst, instead of the best, about each other.

Strategies to consider:

1. Clear the table.

If there is an incident that is unresolved, attempt to reconcile in advance by calling the person, or even writing a note. If possible, try to work it out beforehand, and let them know that you look forward to having a peaceful holiday. It may be enough to say something like, “I know that last year didn’t go well. I hope we can put it behind us and enjoy the holiday.” Keeping it simple will avoid opening up more disagreement. If you are concerned about creating more conflict, or don’t feel safe to process the matter with the person, talk it over with friends or a therapist to generate other solutions.

2. Come as you are.

It’s not unusual to regress into former, unhealthy roles when exposed to family members. Old rivalries, jealousy, and grudges can trigger parts of us that we thought were long gone. Find support for who you are now, and you may find a new and healthier way to connect with your relatives. If the thought of authentically showing up seems threatening, it may be worth thinking about why you are willing to give yourself up in order to keep the peace.

3. Participate in breaking the cycle.

Empower yourself by bringing a friend for emotional support, and give yourself permission to leave at any time. Actively redirect conversations to neutral topics that are open to everyone at the table. Politics, gossip, and religion are ingredients for disagreement. In addition, remain mindful that alcohol and drugs usually release inhibitions, and may magnify longstanding conflicts. Finally, arrange to connect with supportive friends to talk about your experience of the holiday.

4. Don’t make yourself a victim of your choices.

When attending a celebration feels like a command performance, it’s time to take stock of the decisions we are making. Reserve the right to decline an invitation to a holiday event, and consider creating your own holiday traditions.

The festive season is supposed to be a time of connection, relaxation and counting our blessings. There are other positive ways to spend time with family that don’t have to cost you your mental health, hard earned vacation days, or precious holiday moments that could be spent with people who love you, as much as you love them. We can’t change people or our past, but we can choose to change our present by throwing out the leftovers, and bringing the truth of who we are to the holiday table.