Holiday Special: How to Prepare for those Triggering Family Gatherings

coping mindset stress Dec 14, 2021

Ah, the holidays! A time of unmitigated joy, right? Festive lights and yummy food and parties with those certain people who know exactly what to say to get under our skin.

Yes, I’m talking about family.

For most people I know, the holidays can be magical – but they can also be awkward, triggering, and stressful. They mean coming into contact with relatives they we only see once a year, and often, those relatives ask questions or make comments that make us feel misunderstood, not good enough, or just plain irritated.

My friend Misha prepared for last Christmas Eve at her sister’s like she prepares for board meetings. She memorized stats on how well her business was doing, so when people asked, she could brag about her achievements. Later, she said she felt kind of scummy, like she hadn’t been totally truthful – but she hadn’t known how else to handle it.

Ron, a former client, skipped one family gathering because he knew they were going to ask about his career, and he was embarrassed to tell them how it was really going.

My friend Heidi, who had quit her lucrative, ladder-climbing job to focus on her health, knew her extended family would never understand her decision. So she invented a whole fictional life to tell them, including a rich boyfriend and a successful career.

It’s a fact: holidays aren’t always happy. Sometimes they’re cringey, awkward, and painful.

Fortunately, there are ways to navigate the tumultuous seas of a family gathering. Here are 5 ways to prepare to face those difficult relatives with confidence, positivity, and courage.

  1. Recognize the discomfort, and own it. Don’t try to tamp it down or pretend it isn’t there. Many of us feel like bad people if we admit that we’re not excited to see our families, and so we don’t fully acknowledge our true feelings – but that doesn’t mean they’re not there. So be honest with yourself. Name the feeling, and allow it.
  2.  Explore the feeling. What’s underneath the discomfort (or stress, nervousness, etc)? For many people, it’s fear of being seen as a failure. I know it’s unpleasant, but sit with that feeling for a minute. What’s behind that?Chances are, our families’ blank faces and condescending (or outright judgmental) behavior is painful because it’s tapping into some deep-rooted negative beliefs.
  3.  Get curious. Uncovering those limiting beliefs is an important step toward healing them. Instead of beating yourself up for having them, approach them from a place of curiosity. What does that feel like? What is it like, living with that belief? What would happen if you didn’t believe that about yourself?
  4.  Burn those beliefs. Now that you’ve seen those negative beliefs, you can work to eliminate them. Simply notice whenever they pop up throughout the day. When they do, take a deep breath. Remember that these are just beliefs – they’re stories we tell ourselves. They’re not true. Practice seeing them as such.
  5.  Replace them with more empowering beliefs. What do you want to believe about yourself? “I am good enough,” “I am on the right track,” “I am amazing.” When you catch the negative beliefs creeping in, take that deep breath and then replace them with a more empowering one.

The more you go through this process, the easier it will get to unearth those lurking negative beliefs and replace with them positive ones – and the more believable the positive ones will be!

Okay, so that’s one powerful process you can use to address those tense feelings. Here are few more tips:

  • Practice “emotional generosity.” A recent article in Pure Wow called this “the Jedi mind trick that might just save your adult relationships (and your sanity)”. What is it? It’s a form of empathy that allows us to not take things too personally. For instance, if your aunt says to you “Oh, still not married?” – that could be triggering! But if you approach it with emotional generosity, you’ll recognize that her flippancy is more a sign of her own insecurities than your self-worth.

EG helps us remember that most people’s behaviors are less about us than we think. Everyone we meet is responding to their own “stuff” – and keeping that in perspective can help us avoid feeling like we’re being judged or ridiculed with every passing comment.

  • Set boundaries. Even the most emotionally generous person may get fatigued after using too much of it. So set boundaries that honor your own needs and desires. Maybe that means committing to leave the Christmas Even gathering at 9pm – and sticking to that even if your mother gives you a hard time. Maybe it means keeping certain topics off the table, even telling someone “I’d rather not discuss that right now.” Maybe it means keeping your exposure to a certain hyper-triggering cousin to an absolute minimum. Be firm about your boundaries, even if it’s uncomfortable. You don’t have to abandon yourself to please other people.

  • Remember what’s awesome about you (and your life). Families often don’t “get” us, but many of them love us anyway…even if we don’t always feel it. Remember that you’re amazing – even if you’re living a different life than your family expected. Carry yourself and speak from that place of self-love. When you do, your family is more likely to pick up on it. But even if they don’t, you’ll feel better for owning your own life.

  • Take good care of yourself all holiday season. That means get lots of exercise and sleep, eat healthy foods, keep sweets and drinks to a minimum. Use your mindset tools – visualizing, affirmations, meditating – to bolster your mental health, too. By doing this, you’ll help keep your body and mind in the best possible health, which means you’ll be more likely to feel strong and positive in any situation.

What are your holidays like with family? Do you ever experience that triggering, anxiety-inducing feeling at family gatherings?

What have you done in the past to address that discomfort? Has it worked?

I encourage you to use any or all of these tips and tools as we move through the holidays, and any time of year. That’s the great thing about mindset tools – they work in pretty much any situation!

If you want some extra support and guidance in handling holiday stress, whether that’s family-based or otherwise, email me to set up your next coaching session. We’ll get to the heart of what’s stressing you, and you’ll come out the other side with a new take on things, a new plan, and a new mindset.

Go out and shine.



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