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Tiffany L. Craig, MS LCPC is the owner of Continuum Counseling Services in Columbia, Maryland.  She offers counseling services to families and individuals of all ages.

Few things can be as stressful as getting together with family for the holidays. Except, perhaps, getting together with family for the holidays right after a highly contentious political election!

This holiday season, many people are dreading family gatherings as they know they will be amplified by political differences. Not going might actually be the best option for some people. For the rest, having strategies in place will be imperative for success. Here are some things to consider:

Self-Regulation
When we experience anxiety, anger, stress or tension, our bodies automatically go into “sympathetic nervous system dominance.” The part of our brain that processes logical thought goes offline while our reactive brain wakes up. The result is often saying things we don’t intend in the heat of the moment. It’s also why some people drink too much around their families! Allowing your reactive brain to take over is not your best option if your goal is love and health. You need your thinking brain engaged!

Take regular inventory of where you are holding tension. Let it go. Breathe deeply. Remind yourself that you are not actually in physical threat. All of that tension in your body is keeping you from thinking well.

Distract, Deflect and Decline
Once you have calmed your body and can think clearly, you will need to think creatively. We often tolerate bad behavior from family members, “because they’re family.” This is not a good strategy. Our boundaries need to be more secure, with a higher level of respect with family than with friends, colleagues or neighbors. Healthy boundaries make healthy relationships.

Let’s say you’re in a conversation with your grandmother and she starts to regale you with an uncomfortable political opinion and then asks you what you think. You can’t go along with what she’s saying in good conscience. At the same time, you really don’t want to disrespect Grandma.

If you find yourself veering into“no-win” territory, there are three D’s that might save you: Distract, Deflect and Decline.

First, try distraction: “Grandma! Your biscuits are amazing! Do you have some sort of magic in your kitchen? Can you teach me how you do that?”

Next, try to deflect: Think ahead of time about a phrase you can throw out there that will satisfy the inquiry without committing to any particular stand. My favorite these days is, “We sure do live in interesting times!” Sometimes a smile and a simple “I love you” does the trick. You can’t get into an argument if you aren’t taking the bait!

If distraction and deflection don’t get you off the hook, you might have to decline the conversation: “You know Grandma, I don’t get a chance to sit and talk with you that often. Can we talk about something else? How have you been doing?” This gets the conversation focused back on your primary goal: Love and health in the family.

Creative Exits
When other strategies fail, you might need to exit the room either physically, or cognitively and emotionally.

Try excusing yourself to the restroom. Who can argue with your need to use the bathroom? Leaving the room gives you a chance to regroup, get intentional about calming your body again and getting back in your thinking brain.

Remind yourself that you have nothing to prove. Most people regress emotionally when around their families of origin. You might get tangled up in trying to garner validation. Remember, those who value you, will value you. Those who don’t, wouldn’t change their minds even if you won the Presidential election! If you value who you are, it doesn’t matter if anyone else does.

You can always leave. Value your wellbeing. It is accurate to say that you aren’t feeling well. It may not be a physical malady, but you are feeling unwell just the same. Go take care of yourself.

Sit back and watch the show. If you feel centered enough to go back into the family fray, pretend you’re walking into a play. As my fellow therapist Rob Burdette says, “Pop the popcorn and watch The Crazy Show!” They aren’t paying you enough to be one of the actors, so be the audience. Families can be wildly entertaining when you aren’t caught up in the swirl.

Let your mind drift onto more interesting things. Write a novel in your mind; count how many times the word “hate” is said… Whatever entertains you. If pressed, you can say, (in as neutral a tone as possible). “I’m really not interested in that topic.” Or try the “I love you” technique.

Choose Love (Over Winning)
Conversations in many families get derailed when the goal becomes “winning,” rather than promoting mutual understanding. Some families simply do not have the skills to do that. See your family for who they are, value what you can value, and love however you can love. One of the most loving things that you can do is to challenge unhealthy family norms. Don’t be deterred by pushback. They may not be ready for what you’re offering.

The Bottom Line
Remember… these events do end. Time keeps moving around the clock and eventually you will leave. It’s your life; choose how you spend it. Choose health. Choose love.

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