Peace on earth and goodwill toward men will happen when people put those principles into practice at their own family gatherings. The holiday season often means spending time with relatives, some of whom can be difficult. Long standing problems and ill-will often cause people to dread seeing their extended family at the holidays.
For Serena the problem centers on her mother, whose continual criticisms are very hurtful. When Serena reacts with displeasure, her mother tells her she’s just trying to help. The tension between them is palpable. Serena tries to avoid her mother, but that only seems to intensify her mother’s need to make negative comments.
You’ve probably had a similar experience with a family member who frustrates you. You’ve tried to talk pleasantly to them, and you might have even lost your cool with them if they’ve pushed you past your limit. Neither the nice or nasty approach has worked, has it? It’s amazing how quickly your automatic reaction to that person fires off when their bad behavior begins.
You know that you can’t change or control other people in your family, but you can create an effective reaction that is – excuse the expression – semiautomatic. So how do you find the courage to stand up for yourself when a loved one becomes critical of you? How can you make a dignified response when a person who’s close to you puts you down? What can you do to restrain yourself when you feel the urge to counterattack?
The answer to these questions lies in the very process that produced the problem in the first place. You were conditioned as child to participate in a particular stimulus-response pattern when interacting with family members. Your reactions became automatic during an early stage of development when you had a limited response repertoire and had to conform to your parent’s rules of engagement. Through intense and repeated confrontations with problem people in your youth, you developed fear-based reactions that hijack your brain. To this day, those programs for dealing with your family are driving your interactions.
To effectively cope with difficult family members, you’ll need to change your attitude and your approach toward them. You’ve tried to get those people to stop hurting you. But how successful have you been in your efforts to change that the other person? The good news is that since becoming an adult you’ve very likely learned other coping mechanisms that offer a useful set of skills to bring into play with your family.
For example, you may have had a boss who was a pain in the neck. But you learned to cope with his criticisms more successfully than how you’ve been handling yourself when your mother says something hurtful. You accepted the fact that you didn’t have the power to change your boss, and that you needed to have a functional relationship with that individual. So you adapted and survived the occasional unpleasant encounter. What have you learned about how to do that? What would it look like if you were to apply those lessons to your relationship with your mom?
You’ve developed adult coping mechanisms that allow you to deal with difficult people reasonably well. Being criticized is still hurtful, but you know that you have new choices about how to handle such comments. There’ve been times in which you interacted with an infuriating person and refused to give them the negative response they were expecting. You’ve stayed positive and took away their power to control you with their critical comments. You can transfer that learning to your family by focusing on creating a positive outcome in your personal life as well.
Imagine switching to a positive topic when someone in your family starts becoming negative. Even if the problem person doesn’t respond favorably to you, another family member will. In fact, you’d be wise to recruit the ahead of time: “If Uncle Harry starts talking politics, help me change the topic.” As other people begin to resonate with your positive energy, the family member who is acting badly will have to decide whether to remain negative and disconnected or change their approach and join in the good times.
You can make the choice to apply your adult responses to the difficult people in your family. Practice ahead of time by imagining yourself generating positive conversations. Consider expressing gratitude to a loved one or appreciating something about them. Someone else might stay negative, but how will you feel?
Peace and goodwill are gifts you give yourself.