Amy Johnson, PhD, social psychologist, certified personal coach, and author of Modern Enlightenment: Psychological, Spiritual, and Practical Ideas for a Better Life.
Your extended family is, on the whole, colorful and fun. At holiday get-togethers, you enjoy Uncle Bob’s fishing stories, Cousin Kathy’s tales of office intrigue, and Grandpa Tony’s reminiscences. But then there’s that one person — the one who can be counted on to tell the racist joke, launch into a conspiratorial rant about corporate skullduggery, dominate the conversation with a made-for-cable political screed, or otherwise create an atmosphere in which everybody stares at the floor and longs to drop through it.
Your embarrassment seems to freeze you, and your anger makes you want to punch the wall. What to do? The offender belongs to the family. You love her even as you cringe. He’s not about to be disinvited or disinherited. But you are really tired of having your holiday tainted by the stress of anticipating and struggling with what this person is going to say or do.
How can you keep your cool during these difficult moments — and how might you talk to your family member about the discomfort he or she creates? Psychologist and coach Amy Johnson has some timely advice for handling a difficult relative.
Barriers to Overcome
- Fearing the worst. Anticipatory dread of what Cousin Mike is going to say or do this year can create unrealistic worst-case scenarios and increase your stress, long before the actual scene plays out.
- Checking out. The feelings of embarrassment you’re likely to experience when the problem person starts pushing the family’s buttons are likely to make you “space out” during the episode, freezing your response to the person and to others in the family.
- Anger and blame. Disgust with the difficult family member’s behavior may prompt you to overreact internally or externally or both, judging the person as bad, impossible, or stupid. This can lead to a blowup that turns an uncomfortable situation into something dangerously explosive.
- Force of habit. Aunt Dolores has been trotting out her cringe-worthy views of her least favorite politicians so often at family gatherings that everybody has simply sunk into a sort of dull, stoical suffering mode, enduring her until she tires out. “You tell yourself, ‘This sucks, but at least we know what to expect,’” Johnson says.
- Fear of making things worse. “You can easily feel that, as unpleasant as things are when the problem person holds forth, saying anything to him or her — especially when the group is gathered — will only make the person react badly and create worse feelings all around,” Johnson says.
- Different perception of the problem person. While you may be bothered by Aunt Anna, others may not understand why you are concerned. They may even enjoy Anna’s off-color jokes or agree with her hot-button politics.
- Anxiety about family alliances. Johnson points out that, however difficult the family member’s behavior may be, he or she probably has allies within the family. Confronting the problem person runs the risk of alienating him or her, and creating or deepening family divisions.
- Exaggerated expectations about family. Your family may fall victim to the assumption that because they share genes and a certain amount of history, “normal” families are supposed to get along all the time, and “good” family members ought to sympathize with each other constantly. This, Johnson suggests, can make you extra angry or even prompt despair.
- Exaggerated expectations about the holidays. “The idea that the holidays are supposed to be harmonious all the way through has probably created more awful holiday experiences than anything else,” Johnson says. This expectation can blow the unpleasant moments with the difficult family member out of proportion, making him seem worse and more calamitous than he really is.
Strategies for Success
- Don’t take it personally. “In family settings, people are particularly prone to personalize disagreements and other problems,” says Johnson. Remember that, though the problematic person is really bothering you, he or she is probably not actually aiming to spoil your holiday.
- Have a friendly talk. Johnson suggests sitting down for a one-to-one talk with the person you’re in conflict with to address the behavior that’s getting under your skin. “It probably should be in a place and at a time that’s removed from family functions and other family members — don’t gang up on Uncle Bill — and you should do your utmost to make Uncle Bill feel comfortable and appreciated.” Buttering him up with praise to prepare him for the occasion isn’t the point, however — he’ll see through it. Just project kindness and love in your tone and demeanor.
- Address behavior, not character. In talking with Uncle Bill, says Johnson, the key thing is to let him know that you are bothered by specific behaviors — you’re not judging his character or opinions: “When you tell those kinds of jokes, I feel uncomfortable,” or “Sometimes you kind of take charge of the conversation in a way that makes it hard for me to express myself.”
- Address only your own discomfort. Rather than condemning a person’s behavior as abstractly bad or wrong, or bringing in the rest of the family as backup (“Everyone else agrees with me”), focus entirely on the fact that it makes you uncomfortable, suggests Johnson.
- Remember his or her good qualities. No matter how difficult certain aspects of the person’s behavior can be, he or she comes with a full battery of human traits, including some really good ones. Keeping these in mind, Johnson says, can help make your quiet talk with the person easier on both of you — and keep you calmer if the behavior doesn’t change.
- Accept your powerlessness. “If you have a talk with the person, remember to allow her to make the response that she makes,” Johnson says. You don’t have the power to make her change her behavior, or to agree with you. She may be offended, and that, too, is her business. “The important thing for your peace of mind is that you have told your truth. Having done that, let go.”
- Embrace family differences. “There are as many different visions of reality in a family as there are people,” says Johnson. The fact that not everyone agrees with you about Cousin Sarah’s behavior and what to do about it shouldn’t stop you from stating your truth, but it shouldn’t make you sore at your relatives either.
- Get outside support. “There’s a certain magic in family gatherings that puts you right back into familiar roles — waif, caretaker, the responsible one, whatever — with all the discomfort that may come along with them,” says Johnson. “When dealing with any uncomfortable situation at a family gathering, it’s a good idea to have available, by phone or some other way, a friend who knows and supports the person you are now.”
- Be of service. Ultimately, you have the option of removing yourself from the living room when Cousin Al gets going — and one of the best ways to do that is to offer to help. Do the dishes, run errands, take care of kids, or help with the cooking.