When “Do You Hear What I Hear?” is Incessant Arguing: Holiday Season 2020

We’ve spent a LOT of time dealing with uncertainty over the past months, but one certainty coming up is the holiday season. The holidays will look different for 2020, but some things we can expect to remain largely the same, and one thing in particular that is almost always a certainty over the holidays is family conflict.

When Our Loved Ones Bring Out Our Inner Grinch:

1) Cabin Fever, Holiday Edition: We are spending more time with partners, roommates, and family since we are not going to work/ school/ out in general. We are waking up every day and seeing the same people. Every day. We love our families, but over time, we wake up, look at them and think “Oh, it’s YOU again…” Over time, the old saying that “familiarity breeds contempt” starts to feel more and more true (it’s not, it just feels that way).

2) Love is not the issue; tolerance and fatigue are! Do you have a favourite food? Love chocolate chip cookies, perhaps? Or maybe pizza? Want to eat it every day, for every meal? How about a favourite song? How about that song on repeat for 2 weeks straight? No? Of course not. – same rule applies to our loved ones: we love them, but we also crave variety and we run the risk of over-satiating ourselves on the same thing every day. Try to build some variety into your day, especially as the holidays go on, so that we have those little bursts of happiness when we re-connect with loved ones.

3) Our conversations and interactions have become more politicized/ polarized and disparate opinions can enhance conflict. Our need to be right supersedes our need to get along (though over time, the need for empathy and acceptance outweighs the need to be right). Uncle Bob is a flat-earther? Cousin Elaine is just back from her first semester of liberal arts university and criticizes the crass consumerism of Christmas while everyone is opening their gifts? A good ol’ “Is that right” with a smile and nod does little harm. But of course, also feel free to disagree (see #5 below), but be prepared for the consequences. We do need to acknowledge their perspectives/ beliefs, even if we don’t agree or respect them.

4) Irritation has a cumulative effect – increased irritation makes us more vulnerable to more irritation. Take breaks and value separation (see below).

5) It’s okay to say no. “No” is a word we use a lot when we are three years old, and then we eventually start to agree just to get along. We agree in family situations to keep the peace. “Yes,” you’ll say. “I’d be happy to play Monopoly with you!” knowing full well that your family has never played a full game of Monopoly that did not end in tears or accusations and lawsuits. So, try it out. Say it out loud, right now – “NO!” Feel good? Maybe – just maybe – you felt those happy little neurotransmitters give you a pop of happiness and joy from saying something you usually repress. On the

other hand, maybe not, because if you did what you were asked by saying “No!”, you were technically agreeing with the request to say No! Which means you were, in a way, really saying “Yes.” That’s a bit of a mind-bender for you!

Strategies to Make the Holidays Happier

1) Pick your battles. Know when to say, “You may be right” (doesn’t mean the other person is right, just that they may be right!). Know when to stage a dignified and sensible retreat – retreat is not a failure, it’s an opportunity to regroup and rethink your approach.

2) Use “I” statements such as “I am not in a great place for talking about his right now because I feel tense, so I need to take a break” or “I feel frustrated that my ideas are not being respected, so I would appreciate it if you could try to hear things from my perspective.” YOU statements (“You aren’t listening!” “You always/ never…”) instantly create defensiveness and when we are defensive, we attack, creating more defensiveness, etc. Conflict increases.

3) Avoid blame – accept your own responsibility. No one is perfect and it may be valuable to listen – and really listen – to the other person and identify even just ONE way in which you could be wrong. And if you are wrong, admit it – everyone is wrong at some point (I’m wrong multiple times daily!) and while it’s hard on our ego to admit that we may be wrong, admitting mistakes takes a LOT of guts!

4) Use could instead of should – we could have dinner together as opposed to us should – there is often judgement implied in should and generally, no one likes to be told what they SHOULD do.

5) Be honest about boundaries – don’t try to please everyone; set specific times for breaks, and explain why breaks are necessary for you.

6) Monitor your irritation – if you’re watching a show and people are talking over it, either use an “I” statement (“I am frustrated that I can’t hear this show that I was looking forward to” or quietly – without drama – leave to find your calm. Don’t leave with a flourish, no one is going to give you an Oscar nomination for your room-leaving performance!

7) Create a Self-Bubble. We are all familiar with our COVID “bubbles.” What works for COVID may also keep us safe from interpersonal conflict. Take guilt-reduced breaks. For instance, I love my family, but going to movies/ drives is good “me” time.

8) Be okay with separation – distance can be a positive buffer and actually prevent conflict and enhance relationships

a. Closed or ajar doors at home

b. Headphones/ playlists/ even just noise-cancelling headphones

c. “Safe place” in your home where possible

d. Long showers/ baths

e. Walks

f. Drives

g. Communicate with those outside of your bubble

Overall, we may not choose our family, but we can choose what kind of relationship we want with them and can use boundaries as a way of enhancing our relationships.