Dr. Anna Charbonneau

Therapy for people living with stress, depression, and medical conditions

Three strategies to cope with difficult people during holiday parties

by Dr. Anna Charbonneau | Tags: relationships, stress

Let’s face it, holiday gatherings can be tough. Sometimes, based on past experiences, we can come to dread parties because they come difficult people with questions like:

“When are you going to have children, dear?”

“Are you still looking for work?”

“Oh, you decided to wear that dress? What an interesting choice.”

Some questions can be innocent enough, but still incredibly wounding. If you’ve been struggling with infertility, for example, a simple question about expecting children can press on very sensitive emotions. And we all have had to deal with people—friends, relatives, in-laws—whose questions are not so well meaning.

Sometimes, it’s enough to make an isolated cave on a mountain top seem like a more appealing option than facing that party. But relationships can be really important for social support, joy, and healthy living. Isolating yourself isn’t a great solution.

So when you feel like Uncle Joe is secretly judging your food choices at the dinner table and you can’t take one more backhanded compliment from your Aunt Margaret—try some of the following strategies.

1. Think about the person’s intentions.

Sometimes—especially with relatives who clearly mean well—you can get some relief by listening and responding to the intention behind the question.

Imagine a well meaning aunt asks about your plans to have children. Is her intention simply to try to connect with you and show interest in your life? Respond with, “Oh thank you for asking about me! Lately, I have been focusing more on….”

What about when a friend of the family casually asks about your work. He probably has no idea that you’ve been agonizing over being unemployed for the past four months. Take a breath and try to respond to his intention—he most likely is just trying to be friendly and make conversation. Make a plan for how to respond to this question. You might try, “Oh, that’s a tough one at the moment.” Or, “I’ve been looking for work as a…”

2. Leave arguments for later.

For truly difficult people and conversations, mirroring is a solid strategy. What is mirroring? Mirroring is repeating a person’s statement back to them as calmly as you can. Mirroring lets the other person know you have heard and understood them. It’s a way to acknowledge the person without agreeing but without starting an argument either.

Mirroring goes like this. Someone says, “I really think you need to go to school to be a doctor.” You respond, “Oh, I see, you think I need really need to go to school to be a doctor.” Someone says, “I think gluten allergies are a giant scam.” You respond, “Oh, I hear you. You think gluten allergies are a scam.”

Try to respond as calmly as possible and put as little emotional energy into it as you can. Aim for pleasant and neutral. You could then try to pivot the conversation to another topic by saying something like “I love this pie you made.” or “My favorite food is cheese anyway.” Pivot the conversation and sail right on by that same old argument this time. You can then choose to focus more on enjoying your time as best you can.

If you want to really get the hang of this, practice with a trusted friend or loved one beforehand.

3. Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.

I remember a few holidays seasons ago, I was working with a client who was so distraught about an upcoming family holiday party that we ended up spending an entire therapy session devoted to the topic. She was worried but noted several time, “I just hope nothing bad happens this year.” The problem with this is that one family member had gotten angry and stormed out of every single family gathering for the past five years.

So, while we can always hope that doesn’t happen again, simply using “hope” as her only strategy was leaving her feeling anxious and helpless. Instead, I suggested we brainstorm ideas for how to anticipate what was likely to happen and come up with some ways to respond.

For her coping strategies, she thought about asking her family whether they could have an alcohol-free party this year. She agreed that should would be on the look out for trouble brewing and if she noticed warning signs, she could leave early. She also practiced how to handle difficult questions from a family member who often goaded her into arguments in the past.

These are just a few of the ideas she came up with—but armed with an ideas and a plan, she felt much more confident in her ability to handle whatever came up.

Make a Plan

These are just a few strategies you can use to help you cope with holiday gatherings and limit your stress.

Before heading out the door to the holiday party, take a few minutes to take stock. Remember what happened last year. Who is likely to cause difficult feelings to come up for you? Then make a plan for dealing with that. Think about ways you can stay engaged while still keeping calm.

You don’t have to set yourself on fire to keep anyone else warm.

And remember, it’s okay to set boundaries. You can leave early. You can limit conversations with certain people. It’s important to do what you can to stay connected to important people.