Project U. Blog

The One Thing to Remember to Survive Stressful Family Gatherings

Posted by Catherine Saar on Wed, Nov 19, 2014 @ 08:15 PM

I am always surprised at how smart, professional, highly successful people revert to old, non-serving childhood patterns once they step into a family gathering.  Just a few triggering words from mom, dad, or sis, and suddenly, our adult self-control goes out the window. We either end up saying stuff that we wished we hadn’t… or we keep quiet and feel unhappy about the experience.Thanks dinner 2

Next time you are stressed, and it feels as though you don’t have a choice about what you are about to say or do, stop for a moment.  Ask yourself, is that really true?  Often when we say, “I had no choice” it really means we strongly preferred the consequences of one choice versus another.

There is something empowering about realizing that even when you do something because “you think you should,”  (maybe to avoid angering or disappointing someone), you actually are choosing how you behave. 

So remember, if the holiday gathering isn’t going the way you hoped, then you can choose to do something differently.  Here are five ideas to get you started:


When something (or someone) isn’t going right, sit quietly for a moment, and take a deep breath before taking any action.  Just creating that tiny space can allow you to stay centered and to decide what you want to say or do in the moment. Hopefully, your considered choice will serve you better than a reactive response will.  You might even tell the person(s) involved that you need to take a moment to gather your thoughts before responding.


Oh yeah, Aunt Milly may be annoying you again with the same old question that seems to undermine everything you stand for.  Why can’t she get a clue? Chances are, she isn’t doing things just to bug you.  It’s more likely that she is trying to get her needs met. Maybe it is the only way she knows how to connect.  Whatever is going on for her, can you remember it’s not really about you?   Instead of getting defensive, how would it be to imagine that she is being loving in the best way she can?


If you just read number 2 above and said to yourself, ‘NO WAY I could respond to her that way!”  then perhaps you can apply some self love when the going gets tough.

 Try talking to yourself as if you were comforting your best friend. (HINT:  Try naming your feelings and also what you wish for, not just what you don’t want – this eases stress in our brain – even if we don’t get what we want in that moment).

For example,   “Yes, this is difficult.  Aunt Milly is really aggravating me because I just want to enjoy being with the family and I feel like she never listens to me.  I really want to be listened to.” 

Once you are clearer and calmer, perhaps self expressing would also help you settle, maybe   something like, “Aunt Milly, the holidays are so stressful that I really just want to enjoy the day, so I would prefer not to go into that right now.” 

Self-expressing probably won’t change Milly, but you may feel a whole bunch better for creating boundaries and sticking up for your needs without causing a ruckus.


Whether your brother is always two hours late to dinner, or cousin Bill tends to drink to excess, how might you change up the environment to make it easier on you and yours? 

Maybe you let your brother know that if he is late, you will start dinner without him. Alternatively, you could serve dinner two hours later than you normally would.

As for Cousin Bill, that’s a bit trickier. If despite best efforts, Bill gets stinking drunk and you just cant handle it, you can decide to leave.   Or, if the family drama is just too much to take, you could decide to make plans to go elsewhere this year and avoid the whole mess.  The tip here is this: You have two feet.  Use ‘em to get you where you want to be.


Sometimes, your best efforts, loving intentions and deep breathing still leave you sad and disappointed with your holiday.  Go ahead. Feel it.  Reach out to a good friend and ask them for support.  Share your story and get heard by someone who is willing to listen and who understands.   Then, let it go.  Research shows that retelling a traumatic story over and over simply ingrains it into our brain, and makes it feel even more real, as if we are experiencing it again.  Why do that to yourself?

Let go and move on, tomorrow is another day, and next year, you will get another opportunity to crack the code on a less stressful holiday.

Whatever you do, embrace it.  After all, it really is your choice.

Tags: empowering, self compassion, get support, perspective, choice, stressed, triggering, two feet rule, deep breath