A perfect metaphor for a family gathering can be voluntarily stepping into quicksand and waiting to see how long it takes you to sink, or how long you’ll be stuck there for before you are rescued. Of course the more you struggle the quicker and deeper you will sink!
Sadly, this is modern family life for so many people. Even putting half your savings into good, effective therapy, within 15 minutes of a family reunion you can get enmeshed in the same old destructive family dynamics. All the deep breathing and ‘letting go’ techniques fail you as your sister has her usual tantrum and a mere sigh from your mother sends you in to a spiral of despair.
So strategies for dealing with these sinking feelings would come in very useful. Here are my top four:
1. Set your boundaries
I know a number of people who are absolutely fine to talk to on their own, but put them in a group and they transform into a completely different person, often not a pleasant one, particularly after a few drinks!
Deciding if they’re okay in one-to-one situations or only in a group can help you manage their personalities and presence so much easier.
How much time can you spend with them before they irritate you and you’ve allowed them to spoil your day? Is it minutes or hours? Would you be more enthusiastic about the gathering if you gave yourself an excuse to leave after a certain time? Develop a headache or have someone call you away? Or simply take time out for some fresh air?
Determining these strategies before the family gathering can make life so much easier and pleasant for you, which can only be a bonus.
2. Release control
Imagine the scenario. You’re in the middle of enjoying a fabulous meal, everyone is getting along nicely when your mother leans over and whispers “Are you going to lose weight in the New Year dear”?
Those few words cut through you like a warm knife through cold butter. You may feel inclined to argue or explain what’s been happening in your life; the stresses, trials, tribulations, maybe how hormones are wrecking your life. How beauty is not what you look like, it’s what’s on the inside. How hard it is to lose weight. And actually, you were feeling really good about yourself before she said this.
At this stage you’re becoming very close to sinking deeper into that quicksand. But remember, do not struggle!
Arguing with anyone on any subject actually gives them control of both the situation and your emotions. Accept that they’re allowed to have their own opinions, their own values and ethics, and it’s okay for you to hold your own, too.
Remember, you and you alone are in control of your thoughts and emotions. They belong to no-one else but you. What you think affects what you feel, what you feel affects what you do, how you respond.
Change your thoughts, change your life. Enjoy that feeling of empowerment.
3. Give up all hope
This might seem like a strange piece of advice, but it can work in this context! The hope that our families will act perfectly—or even reasonably well—sets us up for disappointment. Why? Because our greatest disappointments in all areas of life are when our own expectations aren’t met.
Before you enter the fray, just take a few mindful moments to sit quietly and acknowledge how you would wish them to behave, and then prepare to accept them as they are. You’ll either be pleasantly surprised, or you’ll continue to feel detached as you watch them play out on centre stage with their usual behaviour. Just don’t dive up on stage to be with them!
4. Tell a story
If it’s all getting a little too much it can be interesting, and fun, to mentally detach yourself from the group and observe them with a view to describing their activity in a humorous way to friends at a later date. In fact, you could all agree to get together and see who has the best story to tell. The winner gets a free lunch so watch closely!
These four simple strategies can actually help you to continue to love your family unconditionally… warts and all.