“Christmas comes but once a year, and when it comes it brings good cheer.” (Traditional Nursery Rhyme)
Ya, well, for some it brings good cheer; for others, it really can be a miserable old time.
My advice is not only relevant for people who dread the upcoming ‘festive’ season, but for those who listen year in and year out to friends and relatives who moan about their dismal Christmases.
Here are your options this year:
Do exactly as you did last year
Do something different
All right, so that's a bit simplistic. The reality is that unless you do something different you will indeed repeat the same dynamic as last year.
Although it's slightly late in the day, you could cancel the usual Christmas that you inhabit and book Christmas lunch at a pub or restaurant. I know a few families who have done that in the past few years and have never looked back.
You could even book to get away from everything and everyone. I'm a great fan of turning tail and running if you dread what's up ahead.
However, if you genuinely want to have a family Christmas despite what happened last year (and presumably the year before and the year before that and so on, stretching all the way back to childhood), then you absolutely have to change what you do if you want a different outcome.
By doing something different you may not get the outcome you want, but I can guarantee you will get something different.
Whenever families get together, whether it’s a jolly time or a fraught time, everyone will fall into patterns of behaviour.
Forewarned is forearmed. With Christmas a hop, skip and jump away, this is a great time to step back and take a good hard look at the patterns that can make your Christmas so hard. Until you can get under the skin of where the problems lay, you can’t do anything about shifting them.
What actually happens every time you get together? Or rather, what are the patterns that are detrimental to peace and harmony? Keep the good patterns, get rid of the negative ones.
How do I do that??
Accept that your aim is only to change your behaviour. You have no control, nor should you, over anyone else’s.
Once you've identified the patterns it's imperative to identify the triggers. Patterns can only be maintained if you get hooked by the triggers and thus repeat the unhelpful, unhealthy behaviour.
Here’s a for instance: the pattern could be: "Every time we get together, I end up arguing with my sister." The trigger could be: "She always criticises the way I speak to my daughter."
Once you isolate the specific behaviour that triggers the argument, then you can begin to change what you do.
Here’s what you can do
Using the above example, here are some options:
1. Using Diversionary tactics. As soon as you see her mouth getting ready to say the same old thing, take diversionary action and get her to do something for you.
2. Preempting. Get in there before she does. "Oh look I've done it again. I know how annoying it is to you when I speak to Ella that way. My bad!" And change the subject.
3. Agreeing. This can be tricky as you don't necessarily want to agree with her point of view, but you can acknowledge how she feels. "I agree Sis, I can see it annoys you when I talk to Ella that way."
And then zip the lip and get on with stuffing the turkey or whatever other job you have on hand.
4. Putting it on the back burner. Knowing that the holiday time can bring out the worst in both of you, now would be a good time to let her know you know how she feels but that now isn't the best time to open the discussion. "Why don't we park this for now and find a better, quieter time to have a chat."
5. Going to the loo. Invent an urgent need as soon as the offending words are out of her mouth. This will buy you some time where you can have a silent scream, collect your thoughts, rip up some loo roll as though it was your sister and calmly and smilingly return to the fray.
In each case you have no idea how she will react. She might wind down, she might escalate, she might walk off in a huff or she might take the hint. You just don't know.
What will be different is that you've taken charge of the situation by altering what you do so you participate in changing the pattern.
The options will be effective for any trigger you identify: mother-in-law criticising the way you roast the potatoes, hubby plonking himself in front of the telly, Uncle Smithy getting drunk, etc.
The key is to hold on tight and avoid the bait that's either consciously or, more likely, unconsciously thrown your way.
Surviving Christmas means raising your awareness to the point where you can actively choose to behave in ways that support your well-being instead of perpetuating old, dysfunctional patterns that drag you down.
PS: Patterns aren’t just for Christmas! If you find you simply don’t have the strength to challenge your own behaviour during Christmas, by all means give it a try in the New Year. That would be one resolution worth keeping.
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