“My stomach is churning,” said Jennifer. “I know I should be grateful that Mom and Aunt Helen are coming for our family get-together dinner but I’m more anxious than thankful.” She pointed to a family portrait on the dining room wall. “Tom and Mom have never liked one another and Aunt Helen claims she can’t stand being in the same room with Tom’s dad, Bill.” Jennifer sat down and propped her elbows on the kitchen table. She looked at her friend Betty, hoping for a sympathetic response.
Betty let out a long breath. “I know what you’re talking about. I have a similar situation with my sister. Nancy lives alone and likes to do things her way. She can’t seem to go with the flow when we’re all together. I feel obligated to include her for our family get-togethers but I’m not happy about it.”
Harnessing Your Emotions
If this scenario sounds familiar, you may be feeling similar emotions — fear, anxiety, even dread — about getting together with some of your family members. I experience the same with one branch of our family tree. We have repeatedly invested our time, money, labor and love into the life of this family and have been frustrated by the lack of response of any kind.
I’ve learnt to raise my “compassion quotient,” remembering that I don’t have all the facts about other people. I don’t know their challenges or fears, their concerns and worries, their likes and dislikes. And I must also accept the possibility that these people simply may not want to be with me! When that appears to be true, then I am being disrespectful if I keep pushing for time together. On the other hand, such individuals may feel insecure. If I sense that, I can try to identify what small gesture I can make to help them feel welcome and comfortable. With these examples in mind, how can you make family get-togethers less stressful? Here are some ideas to consider and practice:
Give the Other Person the Benefit of the Doubt and express love and courtesy regardless of how you are treated. The old cliché, “kill them with kindness” holds true. Smile, nod, acknowledge what’s said and show interest.
Choose Joy Despite the Circumstances. The event will be over in a few hours or days and you can then resume your life. Don’t allow anyone to steal your good will and well-being. If difficult people are in your home for an extended period, give yourself some time off. Grocery shop alone, get up early and take a walk, excuse yourself for an afternoon nap. If you work, you have those hours away from home and the stress.
Ask Questions. People love to talk about themselves. Find a point of interest and explore it with one or two individuals. This is a good way to learn more about other people and to distract them from disrupting the get-together with hurtful or difficult behavior.
Provide Opportunities for Your Guests to Participate according to their skill and interest — setting the table, leading a game, reading a story, clearing the dishes and so on. People like to be useful. When they are involved, they are less likely to grab the spotlight. One woman learned that her mother-in-law, who is most comfortable in the kitchen, creates less havoc when she has a job to do. For years now, the older woman has been in charge of whipping the potatoes, tossing a fruit salad and setting out the cakes and cookies at family celebrations. The grandchildren tell her, “We can’t wait to eat your whipped potatoes. They’re the best.” The stress when Grandma’s around has nearly disappeared, now that she feels useful.
Limit the Amount of Time You’re Together and stick to it. Set a time frame, whether the gathering is at your house or you’re the guest in someone else’s home. When you reach that point, excuse yourself gracefully. You have the right to come and go as you please. Others have the same right too.
Keep a Sense of Humor. Laughter is a great antidote to stress. If someone criticizes you about something you say or do, take a breath and respond in a playful way. “Thank you, I’ll keep that in mind for next time.” “I wish I had your leadership skills.” “You sound as if you have some great ideas.” Such statements acknowledge the other person, while retaining your sense of self.
Remind yourself that each of us is unique, no matter how difficult we may seem to one another. Extend some love, kindness and charity to those who annoy and frustrate us even as you would like the same treatment from others. And perhaps one day we will even grow to love them as we hope they will one day love us.