Some Relationship Help For The Holidays
Twas’ the day before Christmas, and you’re wondering
Just how you’ll survive another family gathering
You’ve tried not to worry, tried not to care
But you know that someone you can’t stand will be there
Some loudmouth, some whiner, some meddler, or two
Some big shot, some critic, someone to guilt trip you
The thought of the conflict sets up such a clatter
You almost envy the turkey lifeless on the platter
Come listen, it doesn’t have to be such a pain
If only you stay at the top of your game
Ok, I could go on all day in verse. Because life can always be verse. But instead, today’s post offers you hope for maintaining your sanity so you can feel the love, share the love, and bring the holiday cheer that you always wish would be near and dear. (Can’t help the rhyming…I’ve got the spirit of the holly-days!)
It all comes down to understanding your reactions to your relatives, whether birth relatives or the bonus people that came with your spouse. Reactions are responses to contextual triggers. These are the associations I’ve blogged about before.
It should come as no surprise that the word association is related to the word relative, as in ‘related.’ But what usually surprises people when spending time with relatives is how powerful these associations are in determining the way people relate. Associations to contextual triggers happen through repetition and intensity, two words you may associate with family gatherings. And the people in your family can trigger memories, emotions, opinions. If you’ve ever had a repeatedly negative experience with a particular family member, the mere thought of that person may cause you to shudder in revulsion. Some of your associations go back to your childhood, to a time in your life when you had few defenses and no clue how to deal with these persistent players in your life.
There are associations based on the roles people play. Maybe your dad was the master of the house, and this fact was held as a threat to coerce you into compliance. “Just wait until your father gets home.” Or maybe your mom has always been the caretaker, shoving food in front of you as a way of saying “I love you. Eat.” Maybe you have siblings who, by rank and age, get more attention or respect than you do. And maybe you have the habit of either conceding to every demand or polarizing in reaction to the controlling behavior of others.
I’ve heard stories from my coaching clients about behavior changes in spouses around their families. “I don’t even recognize him!” It’s a sudden transformation from who you are to what you were, a reversion to old attitudes and ways of being that come on automatically and cause all your adult understanding to disappear into the onslaught of old associations.
You can change your reactions by identifying the triggers for these old associations, then defusing them ahead of time with a new behavioral response, or ameliorating their effects in real time with new strategic responses. Click here to get my coauthored ebook, Dealing With Relatives, loaded with sensible and actionable ideas for having loving fun with your family, even when their behavior is horrible.
Here’s a fun story from the book. It came from a lady I met when I was a speaker on a cruise ship. I asked her to write it down for me, so here it is in her words:
“My doctor told me I needed to reduce my stress level because of my high blood pressure.So I had to think of a way to deal with my daughter. She is divorced,and the mother of 19-year-old twin boys. She used to call me all the time to vent her anger and frustration,but she would never let me give her any advice on how she might turn things around. I devised a plan to stop this without having to resort to angry words of my own.
“We have caller I.D.,so I called her one day when I knew she was not at home,and I left her a message to call me.When her call came, the message on our answering machine told her: “This is your mother. If you are calling to ask for help or advice, press 1. If you are calling to vent your anger or frustration,press 2 or stay on the line while I connect you with your father. If you are calling to tell me you love me, or to ask how I feel, press 3. If you are calling to chat,or have any other conversation, press 4. Remember,your mother does not like curse words or a loud voice.”
“Well, guess what? It worked! If she starts to tell me something angry now, I say,“It’s time to press 2,”and she laughs and stops immediately. Or else she says,“I’ll call Dad later!”
That’s a great example of changing an association by doing something different.
You know, it seems to me that the people who have the best relationships with families do two things well. First, they know that nothing that happens is personal, even if their name is attached. And second, they recognize that there is no guarantee they will ever see the person again.
How not to take it personally? Consider your relatives in the context of their own childhood and they suddenly make sense. They become children grown tall rather than threats to your existence. And as their behaviors take on a more innocent quality, it becomes more obvious that what they do that has bothered you has more to do with their own coping mechanisms to their own lives than to you.
How to keep your perspective? Face it. This is the only moment any of us have for sure, and there are no guarantees that there will be another after this one. Anyone who has ever lost a loved one knows how paper thin our connection to life is. And the wise person keeps this in mind, to make sure that their last conversation with their relatives is about something other than anger and frustration.
I’ll close out this post with a simple strategy for changing your reactions to family members. You have enough time to use this, but you probably will want to get started right way. Instead of asking the world to change so you don’t have to, change your reactions, from the inside out.
Your life is a reservoir of resources just waiting to be tapped. All you need is a model. Modeling the behavior and attitudes of others is a natural way to learn. When a child enters the world of pretend, it isn’t just to have a good time. It is a safe way to model conditions and behaviors and try them on for size. If you ever swore to yourself that you would never to do or say what your parents did or said, and then noticed yourself saying and doing those things, that was your natural tendency to model at work. Since you can do it without even trying, imagine what is possible when you do this with intention!
Find a Model
What is the inner condition you want to have around your relatives? How do you want to feel when they push the button? Conﬁdent? Calm? Assertive? Amused? Give it a name, and then ﬁnd it, either in yourself, or in your idea of someone else. If there is an area of your life where you have that condition, you can model it and use it wherever you like. If you can think of someone who knows how to be the way you want to be, that’s enough for you to model.
Explore your Model
Step into the model in your imagination, and explore the inner working of how the person does what you want to do. The more details you can notice about it, the better this will work, because intensity and focus builds stronger associations than vague generalizations. Notice posture, mental state and breathing when in that situation. Notice arms and shoulders, inner dialog.
Identify the Trigger
Now that you know what you want, and how it works, it’s time to put it in the context where you need it. Where do you want this change to occur? When, speciﬁcally, do you want this inner condition to occur? If you can identify the exact kind of thing that set you off in the past, you can associate your new condition with it. Is it something your relative says? Something your relative does? Is it the look on your relative’s face? If you think you know what it is, make the association. Close your eyes and imagine your relative doing or saying whatever it is that pushed your button in the past, only use your model to play out the fantasy. The more times you repeat this, the stronger the new association will become. And, as in much of life, practice makes it more perfect!
Just think of the words and put them to work
No need to act like a clown or a jerk
Walking and talking like you know who you are
And laughing and loving neath’ a sky filled with stars
Let them hear you exclaim, ere you drive out of sight
Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!
And with that, I’m outta here. Every comment is appreciated! I wish you the best of holidays!