You’ve already done a lot of things up to this point: Bought gifts, planned trips, cooked or baked a bunch of stuff. Now you’re packing your bag and girding your loins in preparation of some of the issues/topics/discussions that will likely come up over the course of the next week around the people you’ll be in close quarters with once again.
And so I’m not telling you to DO anything more right now. You’ve done enough. Now’s the time to STOP doing some things. Things that you do because you’re on autopilot from years of training by the very people whom you love dearly, but who have and will drive you crazy.
Take it from someone who’s ruined many a holiday. Oh please. Many. I get worked up, rattled, defensive, and then like an old motherboard I short out completely and shut down. My mood hits Blue Screen of Death and there’s no coming back from it. Not even for dessert.
If you can stop doing these three things, even for just this short period of time, you’ll be better off. I’m telling you so that I can remind myself to do it, too.
STOP PLAYING MENTAL MAD LIBS
When it comes to your relatives, so many ingrained patterns can take over that having conversations turns into a horrible game of Mad Libs where you start filling in the blanks of with outrageous thoughts and ideas.
Meaning: If your older sister asks you how work is, she actually may just want to know how work is. You, however, may find yourself working off the old script that says that her character resents you for your job / thinks you’re unambitious, etc. When you start filling in the blanks with YOUR idea about what she really thinks of you and your work, boy are you in trouble now. You’re down the rabbit hole. Which leads to the next thing to stop doing.
If and when my family reads this, they will each do a spit take with their pinot grigio at me doling out this advice. (“Now THAT is rich!”). Because you’re talking to the Queen of Reaction. Whether it’s your sister asking about work or your mother asking about your love life, it may hit some buttons but you have control over how you respond.
Case in point, one of my sisters has a way of laser-focusing her support on me in such a white-hot glare of loving attention that I sometimes can’t take it. I really can’t. I feel like it’s burning a hole through my head. I know she’s doing it with nothing but loving intentions, but for some reason, it always comes across as a kind of interrogation by the time it hits my amygdala.
And it’s not because of what she does (though she is very intense), but how I react to it that makes it worse (anger, defensiveness, aggression, tears). We can all control this; we often don’t.
Let’s pinkie swear this year that we’re going to try. Assume instead that all of it–the comments, the questions–are coming from a place of compassion and care (even if deep down you’d bet dollars to donuts it’s not)–doesn’t matter. ACT as though it is coming from love, and you’ll respond in a much better way.
Sometimes even the prospect of standing your ground can pitch you into a state of weariness and despair (and long naps). Christmas can often become a kind of Year in Review. How far has everyone come? Where have people f’d up? Let’s regale everyone with those tales again. The course correcting, the interventions, the would-be come to Jesus moments–all can fail horribly and go upsettingly awry.
And it can be really hard to hold onto what sanity you had when you arrived–when you were this other, whole, happy person who has a life and an apartment, a job, maybe a relationship. Just being in the vicinity of people who knew you before your teeth were straight or you had a bank account, can make you feel like you’re Benjamin Button-ing into that bitchy, deplorable teenager you once were. EVERYONE goes through that. Doesn’t matter if you’re approaching menopause or your hair is thinning.
The defensiveness that you and I feel comes from an effort to hang onto that calmer, cooler, respectable adult that everyone else knows you to be…and that you feel you must prove that you are. You never outgrow your family–and so it can feel like you need to fight off the “old” you, no matter who that was. To do battle against the old jokes, expectations. But you don’t. And to think you can change your relatives’ minds? You’re lucky if you can get them to try one new dish that wasn’t on the table last year.
Choose a new script. Find a new motivation. Pull the plug on your hard-wired panic buttons and allow yourself to breathe a second before you say a goddamned thing.
Recognize that there is love in the midst of all the ancient game-playing. What’s more, while no one can tease you about the kinds of things these people can, no one loves you like them, either.