Over the past couple of years, whenever a holiday gathering rolls around, my mother and I end up red-faced and screaming at each other about Bill Cosby.
I won’t subject you to the full saga—and I probably don’t need to—because you likely have an infamous recurring argument with your family. Other popular topics include politics, festering resentments from childhood, and who’s cooking what for Christmas dinner.
But here’s the thing: While these arguments might be synonymous with “going home for the holidays,” they don’t have to be. According to Philly-based therapist Alanna Gardner, who specializes in individual and relationship therapy, it is possible to avoid having the same old fights with your family over the holidays and—gasp!—actually enjoy your time with them. Revelatory, right?
Below, Gardner shares her top strategies to avoid getting into the same ol’ screaming matches with your family this holiday season. As a bonus, she also dishes on how to de-escalate an argument if you find yourself in the middle of one (hey, no one’s perfect). May the force be with you.
The situation: You’re packing for your trip home and are already dreading the inevitable blow-up arguments once you get there.
What to do:
1. Decide if you really need to go.
Warning: This is going to sound more harsh than Mariah Carey saying “I don’t know her” when asked about Jennifer Lopez, but that’s only because you haven’t heard this advice before.
Here goes: If it’s giving you extreme anxiety, ask yourself if you actually want and need to go this family gathering. Because—revelation!—you don’t have to.
“You have more than enough permission to not even go,” Gardner points out. “You have permission to set boundaries around toxic people. Because it’s one thing to be arguing about one side of the family always being late”—a common annoyance in Gardner’s family—”but it’s different when people are literally always doing something that’s detrimental to your mental health.”
So ask yourself if now is a time when you need to just suck it up and go, or if now is the time to finally set some boundaries.
2. Know your triggers.
As mentioned above, one of Gardner’s triggers is her husband’s side of the family arriving late to holiday dinners. Knowing the triggers that usually cause you to get upset and lead to arguments is important because, when you’re able to recognize your triggers, you can put systems in place around them to avoid them spiraling into a screaming match.
Other triggers might include your grandma always asking you when you’re finally going to get married, or your mom never making a single vegetarian dish for Christmas dinner, even though you’ve been vegetarian for two decades.
3. Ask yourself what the point of the argument is and if it’s worth it.
From past experience, I am well aware that the Bill Cosby argument leads nowhere—unless you consider a silent dinner table with two people angrily chewing at each other somewhere. So, before Christmas this year I should make the decision that, when confronted with this argument, I will simply not engage with it again, right? Right.
Gardner says, when confronted with a trigger or argument, to ask yourself, “Are you engaging to get to the root of the problem? Are you engaging to defend yourself? Is this something that is going to be fixed? There are problems that are perpetual problems, and when people realize that the problem will never be solved, it takes away some of the fire.”
And chances are, if this argument is an annual occurrence, it likely won’t be resolved.
She uses herself as an example: “I always know that my husband’s side of the family will be late for every holiday thing, and it used to bug me. But then I was like, ‘This is the family I married into.’ They value time differently than I do. So I can’t manage them, but I can manage myself.”
4. Control your controllables.
If you can’t manage your family’s timeliness or snide remarks, ask yourself how you can manage yourself and your circumstances to steer clear of WWIII at the dinner table.
As Gardner says, “I can’t control my husband’s family’s culture; I can’t control how they value time; I can’t control other things that impact people’s abilities to make it to my home on time. So out of all these things I’ve listed, all that I can really control is the food staying warm and myself. If I know my husband’s family will always be late, I will use this time to do something else to get ready, get a quick workout in, or something else for me.”
So, know that your family won’t be cooking anything vegetarian? Bring your own damn mac and cheese. Know that your family starts to get on your nerves after six hours together? Schedule in activities, like a Flywheel class here and coffee with an old friend there, to give yourself some breaks.
The situation: You made it home and resolved not to argue, but now Uncle Bill is baiting you at the dinner table.
What to do:
Remember—or maybe learn for the first time ever!—that you have a choice in whether or not you want to engage with this topic or argument.
As Gardner notes, boundaries are first learned with family, so if you grew up in a family that was more open field—free of any boundaries at all—doing this will feel … uncomfortable. And maybe even rude. But it’s necessary.
As Gardner says, she’s a newlywed and she knows that the question of, “So, where are those babies?” will come up at every family gathering. But she and her husband have decided to set a boundary surrounding this discussion, simply responding, “This is none of your business.”
I told you: It might feel like you’re being rude if you’ve never done this before. But as Gardner notes, it’s totally okay to say that you don’t want to talk about something (see: talking politics with your uncle) or to tell someone that topic is private. Another revelation, right?
The situation: You tried your best to shut down the baiting but now you’re screaming at Uncle Bill over the green bean casserole.
What to do:
It’s not all in your head: Pulling out of an argument is hard. As Gardner notes, this is when our body goes into fight-or-flight mode, and if you’re on the verge of slinging scalloped potatoes in your uncle’s face, you’ve found yourself in fight mode.
That said, Gardner says, “If you do happen to recognize that the conversation is pulling you away from your character, you have the freedom to say, ‘You know what? I don’t like who I’m being in this moment, so I’m going to stop.’”
Did you hear that very pointed “I” statement? As Gardner points out, “What’s going to continue to escalate the conversation is blaming, finger-pointing and name-calling. Using ‘I’ statements, like ‘I feel disappointed about this discussion and how I’m behaving in this discussion,’ creates a lot of freedom in the moment and steps away from blaming the other person.”
And in the end, Gardner says, cut yourself some slack. “In the throes of an argument, we just revert back to our basic selves. Doing something different is a practice.” So if this is your first time practicing any of the above, it might take a few tries to get it right.
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