7 Scientifically Proven Tips to Prevent Your Family from Driving You Crazy During the Holidays

Are you dreading the inevitable fights and blowups that are as much a family tradition as lighting the Menorah or decorating the Christmas tree? Yes, dealing with family during the holidays can be an arduous task, but let this be the year you move past all that.  Below are 7 scientifically proven tips for how you can keep your cool (and your sanity) during the holidays.  Put these tips into practice and let this be the fun, enjoyable time of year it was meant to be.

  1. Change your expectations

Our expectations have a powerful effect on how we experience a situation.  A person is more likely to overcome illness if he expects to overcome it (the Placebo Effect).  Researchers are more likely to come across a specific outcome if they expect that outcome.  And wine drinkers will rate a glass of wine as tasting better when they expect it to be high-quality.  

How do these findings relate to dealing with family during the holidays?  If your expectations shape your outcome then how you expect your holiday to go will influence your experience of it.  If you expect this time with your family to be filled with drama then it’s more likely that will be the case.  If you expect to get along with everyone and have an enjoyable time, then that outcome becomes more likely.

Why do expectations have such a big influence over outcome?  A few reasons:  For one people have a confirmation bias.  We seek to confirm beliefs we already perceive as true.  If you think your family dinner is just going to wind up in a big argument, you’re going to act in accordance to that belief and be on high-alert for any bit of evidence that supports it.  You will essentially be enabling that outcome.

A second factor at play is what psychologist often call the Pygmalion Effect.  The basic idea here is that a person’s behavior is shaped by how others view him.  If you see someone as a huge jerk, he’s more likely to act that way towards you.  If you see him as warm and generous however, he’ll be more inclined to behave in a manner that conforms to that view.

So if you want to set the stage for an enjoyable holiday season then let go of negative expectations and replace them with positive ones.  How?  One helpful trick is to set an intention for how you want the holiday to go.

Make it your goal that you will enjoy yourself and the people around you as much as possible during the holiday season.  (You’ll likely forget about this goal from time to time so make a point to re-commit to it regularly, reminding yourself of this intention throughout the day).

You can even talk to other family members about this to get everyone on the same page working toward the same outcome.  Get together and discuss what experiences you all hope to have and what you can all do (or not do) to make this an enjoyable, stress-free time.

(A friend of mine used this strategy recently.  After a family gathering filled with vicious fighting the whole family met to set an intention for how they wanted the next get-together to go.  It worked and their next family outing was stress and argument-free.)

  1. Have a plan for when disaster strikes

Even with positive expectations you might hit some bumps in the road.  There might still be fights or comments that get your blood boiling.  When that happens and you’re overflowing with negative emotion it can be difficult to find a way out of that tumultuous headspace.

In these situations it’s good to have a coping device already in place.  This is a practice cognitive-behavior therapists often use with their clients and it can be very helpful for handling family drama, too.

So before heading home for the holidays make a list of activities you can do when you get “triggered”.  Taking a walk through nature or going out for some exercise would be good things to add since they’ll help you clear your head and process through negative emotion.  Journaling, playing an instrument, or calling a close friend are also good things to add to that list.

Having a list of go-to activities will keep you from getting sucked into petty drama.  It’ll give you a chance to get some positive feelings flowing again, so when you engage with your family it will be with a clear, calm mind.

  1. The key to changing family dynamics

So often when people want something to be different they focus on the changes they want other people to make.  But trying to force change on others often causes resistance and leads to resentment.  That’s why relationship therapists don’t try to get their clients to change the people around them.  They work with the individual to help him make changes in himself.  Once those changes are made, the dynamics of his relationships can alter drastically.

So if you want a family member’s behavior to change think of how a change in your own behavior might influence them.  Does it bother you how much your brother complains about everything?  Perhaps your own complaining is adding fuel to that fire.  Is it annoying that your sister never listens to you?  Maybe her lack of interest is a reflection of your own lack of interest in her.

Ultimately it’s important to keep in mind that your actions and attitude have an impact on the people around you.  If you want to experience more joy during your holidays remember that this change starts with you.  Happiness is contagious so you can be the catalyst for a great holiday by maintaining a positive attitude yourself.

  1. Smell the damn roses

It’s very easy to get wrapped up in the drama of the holidays.  But what about those other moments?  What about the moments when you look around and feel happy and grateful for all that you have?  When those moments come do you let them fade?  Or do you savor them?

Make a point to really notice, appreciate, and fully experience those blissful moments.  Doing so strengthens those positive feelings and gets you feeling even better.  And the stronger you experience those emotions the easier it becomes to feel them again in the future.  It also becomes more likely that these moments will be the ones you come to expect from the holidays – not the moments of stress and arguing.

But don’t take my word for it.  Here’s what Dr. Fred Bryant, a psychologist at the Loyola University of Chicago who has pioneered the concept of Savoring, had to say in his article The Art of Savoring:

“Research indicates that the level of joy we get from positive experiences depends on how we think and act in response to them…With savoring… thoughts and behaviors generate, intensify, or prolong positive feelings in response to positive events.”

Now you may be wondering, “How exactly do I ‘savor the moment’”?  Dr. Bryant has several suggestions on how do this (which you can learn more about here).  Below is a brief summary of those tips:

  • Share your experience with others.  Don’t just keep these blissful moments to yourself.  Talk about them with friends and family to re-experience them again and again.
  • Let yourself get caught up in the moment.  Ignore petty distractions.  Keep your phone tucked away.  Let go of the thoughts running around in your head and just focus on enjoying the experience you are having.
  • Take a mental picture.  Embrace the sights, sounds, and feelings you’re experiencing.  Let it all sink and appreciate as much as you can from the moment.  Says Dr. Bryant: “[Savoring is] all about saying to yourself, “This is great.  I’m loving it”.
  1. The power of forgiveness

Heading into the holidays, you might have some pent up anger, resentment, or even hatred for someone you will be seeing.  But what if you didn’t?  What if you could unload all that negativity rather than bring it with you?  Well, you can.  All it takes is a willingness to forgive.

Dr. Frederick Luskin, Director of the Stanford Forgiveness Project, has done decades of research on the power of forgiveness.  According to Dr. Luskin “forgiveness has been shown to reduce anger, hurt, depression and stress and lead to greater feelings of optimism, hope, compassion and self-confidence.”

It’s entirely possible that this one tool could be all you need to utterly transform your holiday experience.  In one fell swoop you can let go of past transgressions and replace those negative feelings with a more hopeful, optimistic mindset.  (For more on how to forgive, check out Dr. Luskin’s 9 Steps to Forgiveness here:

Now it can be difficult to forgive someone when you are thoroughly convinced they wronged you in a terrible way.  You may not think that person is worth forgiving.  That’s perfectly understandable. If that’s the case, then it’s important to note that forgiveness isn’t something you do for the sake of the other person.  It’s something you do for yourself.  By forgiving that person you’re simply choosing to let go of the resentment and anger that has done nothing positive for you.  Forgiving does not mean you must forget what the person did.  You’re not obligated to trust them again – or even like them.  It’s just about getting rid of that dark cloud that mucks up your life when you’re around that person.

  1. Express Gratitude

Want to feel closer to those around you?  Expressing gratitude has been proven to create stronger connections between people.  But that’s not all — it also has a very strong impact on increasing overall happiness and well-being .

So if you want to feel more connected with the people around you – or if you just want to feel better and boost your mood – then express gratitude.  Stop “dealing with family” during the holidays and start appreciating the opportunity to connect. Find something in the person next to you that makes you grateful and let that person know what it is you appreciate about them.

This can have an incredible “upward spiral” effect on your mood.  Because not only does it feel good to express gratitude, but doing so often leads to others returning the favor with some grateful words of their own. (Don’t expect that reaction but merely see it as a nice bonus when it happens).

  1. The Relaxation Response

Stressful events can immediately trigger a fight-or-flight response that get you even more riled up.  But you can train yourself to overcome that programming and cultivate a relaxation response.  That way, instead of getting swept up in negative thoughts and emotions, you can more easily let them go — and come back to a place of clarity, stability and control.

How do you prime this relaxation response?  One technique is to focus on your breath when you start to feel yourself spiraling out of control.  Simply come back to the sensation of breathing and count your exhales.  When you lose count and realize you’ve been sucked back into the madness of negative thinking just come back and start counting again from one.  You’ll continue to drift away now and then, but just keep coming back to the breath.  Again and again and again.

Another practice you can try is to label your feelings.  If someone’s comments have ignited you into a fit of rage then acknowledge that feeling (and identify it by saying “rage” to yourself a few times as you feel it).  Don’t try and fight the feeling or push it away.  Stay with it and see what it’s like to experience this feeling and how it changes over time.  If you notice it starts to transform into something else (disgust, contempt, etc.) then give it that new label and continue to explore that new feeling. (For a deeper look into these techniques check out Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation by Sharon Salzberg).

Coming back to the breath and identifying your emotions will help you separate yourself from the thoughts and feelings you experience.  As a result those negative thoughts and feelings won’t have so much power over you.  You’ll have more control over your actions and will have an easier time bouncing back from things that upset you.

Are you still dreading the thought of dealing with family during the holidays? Let’s get started putting these tips into practice right now.  In the comments below let us know the people and activities you’re most grateful for and excited about this upcoming holiday season.

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