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Doing Life Together

christmas-home-1565178Family time over the holidays! Does that idea create incredible feeling of angst?

While most of us will make the familiar trek home to join the family fun, others are growing more anxious as the holiday countdown continues. For many, the trip home is a trip into dysfunction and becomes their personal survivor reality show.  In fact, family get-togethers can create holiday angst—a gift worth not giving!

Most of my therapy discussion during this time of year centers on helping people prepare for family get-togethers and face those feelings of dread. There are a number of things you can do to make family holidays go smoother no matter how dysfunctional you may feel your family is.

My first piece of advice is this—do not idealize the holidays. Be realistic and think through past holiday gatherings. Unless you’ve all been in intensive therapy for a while, the family dance is not that different from years passed. Grandpa will still drink too much. Aunt Mary will be critical of the turkey. And Uncle Jack will be as obnoxious as ever. If you approach your family problems realistically, however, you can better prepare your reactions.

Here are a few tips that might help:

1)    Focus on your reactions, not those of your relatives. Will Aunt Sally curse like a sailor all through the turkey dinner, making you cringe with every word. Most likely, yes. Your reaction is the only thing you can control. Check your response to others and make sure you are behaving according to biblical guidelines even if they aren’t. For example, if Uncle Jim corners you ever year and lambastes you for your political views and you respond with anger that then leads to a fight, stop fighting and say, “Uncle Jim, I can see you feel strongly about your views. That’s great!” Don’t argue. Drop it and diffuse him. Change your reaction because he probably won’t change his!

2)    Ahead of the visit, identify the family patterns that usually cause you stress. Think of new ways to react to those patterns. For example, every year mom complains about your sister to you. You find yourself in the middle of a mother-daughter conflict that has nothing to do with you. Instead of talking with your mom about your sister like you usually do, say, “Mom you need to talk to my sister about this. I don’t want to be in the middle.” Keep redirecting her back to your sister no matter how enticing she makes the conversation. Get out of the middle of this “family triangle”. You don’t want to be there!

3)    Set limits if there are serious family problems. If there is a history of abuse and the abusive behavior begins, be clear about your boundaries and leave. Or if drinking gets out of hand, leave. You are not a child anymore and can set appropriate boundaries. If they are crossed, confront the behavior and if necessary, leave.

4)    Do not stay in you parent’s house if there are serious family problems. This is a strategy that has worked for many of my clients. You have more control over whatever is happening when you can come and go of your own volition. Time away from the family home allows you to regroup, think about what is happening and plan your reaction. It also provides you with a safe place to stay.

5)    Be a model of grace and forgiveness. Extend both during a visit. This doesn’t mean you allow people to walk all over you. It means when people treat you poorly, address it, extend grace and forgive. Don’t wait for them to do so first. And don’t allow offense and bitterness to take root.

6)    Finally, choose one thing you will do differently this year that will help make things better. Don’t try to change everything at once. Focus on one behavior. For example, “This year I am going to ignore Uncle Bob’s smart remarks about Christianity. That’s my goal.” Pray to imitate  Christ in all you do and ask the Holy Spirit to help you overcome your urges to lash out or be ungodly. Small changes add up through the years.

Your family may have problems, but your Christian character and Holy Spirit empowerment can help you make it through these family get-togethers.  What an opportunity to live out the power of love and do what Jesus did, love the unlovely.

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