Tips for Navigating Challenging Relationships this Holiday Season

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Challenging relationship dynamics often rear theirs heads during this season. These can be even more difficult because of the extra stress and expectations surrounding the holidays. Visiting with family or being around old friends can also put us face-to-face with painful dynamics. 

What can you do?

  1. Prepare yourself mentally for the potential challenges: Are there particular people, dynamics, situations, and topics that may cause distress? Try to anticipate these so that you won’t be knocked off balance when they come. Focusing on  your self-care will increase your bandwidth for coping with possible difficulties.

  2. Set healthy boundaries: Boundary-setting is one of the most important, yet difficult aspects of managing challenging relationships. Fear of disappointing or upsetting others may pose a major barrier to us taking care of ourselves in this way. It’s so important to protect ourselves by setting boundaries – fear and all. This might look like taking some time out of a day-long family gathering by going to the store or on a long walk. You can also  take a “rain check” or say “no” to an event with the intention of getting together with your friends or family at another time. When a controversial conversation comes up, try an honest and light-hearted approach: “I’ve told myself that politics are off limits this Christmas! You guys go ahead and debate without me!”

  3. Practice mindfulness by attuning to your own feelings and needs: Mindfulness empowers us to tune into the present moment. While this may be uncomfortable, it’s so important because it enables us to notice when an old relationship pattern is playing out and not get hooked into the problematic cycle. Once we notice that a re-enactment is occurring or has occurred, ask yourself, “how do I usually respond in this situation?” Then, challenge yourself to do something different. For example, if your usual response is to dismiss your own needs and people-please, try to practice self-advocacy. Over time, you will create a new normal in the relationship.

  4. Nurture healthy relationships: These go a long way in helping us to maintain a sense of safety and stability. Secure attachments also help to regulate mood and maintain self-esteem. Lean into these healthy relationships by being intentional about spending time in-person or connecting by phone or video. Make it a priority to connect with such people during the holidays, even if it’s only for a short time. Give them a heads up that you may be managing a challenging relationship and let them know that you may need their support.
  5. Address the situation honestly and directly: In some cases, speaking directly about the dynamic could be really helpful. If you feel safe to do so, try to  genuinely and respectfully express how you feel and the dynamic that you notice. This allows both you and the other person the opportunity to self-correct and possibly repair the dynamic. Try to not cast blame or make accusations. Instead, use “I” statements such as, “I feel unimportant when you speak over me at family functions.”

BONUS TIP: Be empathetic and respect differences in your challenging relationships: While difficult relationships are a great source of pain, try not to take it personally or blame yourself. Instead, practice self-compassion to help you cope in a healthy, self-nurturing way.  In some situations, if you put yourself in the other person’s shoes, it can help you to be more understanding and less frustrated.

Ultimately, you need to protect and care for yourself around problematic relationships no matter who you might disappoint. Utilize these tips this holiday season and beyond.

“Feelings of fear can get in the way of taking care of ourselves and setting boundaries in relationships.” Dr. Mahkada

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