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Annoying Relatives? The Antidote is Preparation, Canned Answers, and Boundaries

By Marth Michael

Holiday Preparations

The holiday season brings with it a merry mix of bright lights and cheerful reunions, but nobody’s homecoming experience is without challenges. Whether your repartee is more like “Family Matters” or “Family Guy,” chances are you sometimes find yourself seated with a mix of personalities that cause clashes -- or at least some awkward moments -- over turkey and stuffing (or Tofurkey and sweet potatoes).

When you bring together multiple generations and cross-country kin, it may require an extra dose of patience to put up with an annoying uncle and some advanced planning to finesse political differences and cultural changes.

Don’t Let the Differences Divide You

It can be a recipe for disaster when the judgy engineer is seated next to the aging hippy and across from the cheerleader girlfriend. However, unusual situations at the holiday table don’t have to end in food fights. A little preparation for a clunky combination of father-sons and plus-ones can help mitigate negative outcomes, according to an article in Women’s Health.

Political Differences

When the elephant in the room is seated next to a donkey (or Peace and Freedom Party, etc.), there can be a lot of simmering under the surface. Many families simply choose to leave politics (and religion) off the table, but if it isn’t stated overtly, there’s a chance issues will arise.

"With family, we feel like we can say whatever we want and they still have to love us," says Carey Sue Vega, an etiquette coach in Oklahoma City who suggests agreeing to disagree. "If the other person isn't willing to have a civil conversation, then you haven't been defeated -- you've protected your sanity.”

The best advice is to stay calm, lower your voice, and steer the conversation to something safer. Hopefully, your composure will be mirrored by others. If such a discussion is afoot, put it off until after the meal.

Diet Differences

When the cook has to come up with meatless dishes, gluten-free options, and the usual fixins for the traditionalists at the table, it’s a pretty burdensome task. It can also lead to hurt feelings in some crowds. Keto dieters can feel judged by vegetarians, and vegans can be disgusted by carnivores, while grandparents may just wish for the unity of yesteryear.

The way things land often depends on how it’s communicated. If you’re genuinely interested in someone’s experience, you don’t want to ask them, “Are you still doing that paleo thing?” In reverse, if someone addresses you that way, you can use a strategy developed by Bill Eddy, LCSW, president of the High Conflict Institute in San Diego, who suggests you respond with a BIFF -- a reply that’s brief, informative, friendly, and firm.

Lifestyle Differences

There’s less controversy around personal choices today than there used to be. More couples live together before marriage, many people choose single parenthood, and you get less judgment about midlife career changes without the 20th century standard of retiring with a gold watch.

You still may get insensitive comments, particularly if one of your family members is old-school or lacks a filter. Creating a response before the event will keep you from getting caught off-guard and reacting. Humor is one option; it can relieve tension and change the subject from your parenting style to the standup career you ditched in the ‘90s.Give some thought to who might give you a hard time and what you will say, depending on the culprit.

Boost Your Boundaries

If preparing for every possible scenario seems tiring, you can take a broader approach and beef up your boundaries which is helpful all year-round. There are many benefits to setting better boundaries, according to an article by WebMD. If you find you hate to say no and place too much emphasis on pleasing those around you, it’s possible you’ve developed patterns that serve the interests of others and deny your own needs.

Establishing boundaries can help you:

  • Reduce the chance of burnout
  • Become independent
  • Gain a stronger sense of identity
  • Define your values and beliefs
  • Build self-esteem

If your inability to advocate for yourself is hard to understand, it may be a good idea to seek the help of a mental health professional. If you want to set better limits, there are some useful strategies for boosting your boundaries.

Communicate - Being direct and honest is the short path to building boundaries. Communicate what you think and feel in a respectful way. If the other party reacts negatively, remember that it’s not your fault.

Don’t make assumptions - You may think you know what another person feels, but you’re just as likely to be misjudging their thoughts as getting it right. By assuming what someone else needs, you often end up compromising your own.

Do what you say - When you fortify your ability to follow through, you’ll find fewer people overstep your boundaries. They’ll begin to trust your words when they’re backed up by action.

Take responsibility - One of the best approaches to communicating your needs is to avoid placing blame or complaining to the other party. Acknowledge your own part in the situation and it’s easier for them to hear.

Say no - It may sound simple, but in some relationships it’s difficult to do. Saying no more often will keep you from getting overcommitted and burned out. Effective phrases to opt out include:

  • I can’t make it
  • Thank you, but …
  • I can’t swing that right now
  • Thanks for thinking of me
  • I have another commitment

There are many mental health benefits to building a skill set that includes solid boundaries. Your relationships improve and it contributes to healing from past mistakes. If you aren’t setting boundaries, you can lose your sense of identity and feel taken advantage of, so making yourself a priority goes a long way.

Whether you’ve got a bohemian wing of the family or your own “Steve Urkel” drops by, chances are you’ve had your share of holidays involving strange bedfellows. Today’s modern family is more diverse than ever, but you can contribute to a feeling of unity with a little preparation.

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