Allison scrolled through Facebook admiring her friend’s posts. It seemed like everyone was enjoying their time with their family. There were posts of happy family reunions, large family gatherings for meals, joyous celebrations of newborns, and family vacations to wonderful exciting places. How come her life wasn’t like theirs? She felt the seeds of resentment towards her friend s growing with each new post.
Just thinking of the next family gathering could ignite a panic attack. Her parents still treated her like a child even though she was well into her 30’s. Her older brother was constantly trying to outdo her in some never-ending competition over who is the most successful. Then there were the in-laws who barely spoke to her and when they did it was laced with syrupy condensing remarks. Alison hated congregating with family and disliked the person she became when she was around them.
Her family tree was littered with difficult people, some of which clearly had a personality disorder. Despite her own therapy to redefine herself, she still struggled with her family. At work, she was a bright star. With her husband, she was treated with kindness and grace. But with her family, she was still 12 and with his family, she was the evil one who took their baby boy away.
So, this year, Allison decided to plan for the dreaded family gatherings. She made a list of all the strategies she successfully used at work to get her last promotion and decided to try them out on her family. Here they are:
- Less is more. Allison discovered with her boss that the less she showed her ego in front of him, the more power she appeared to have. For the family, this meant putting aside her need to prove that she has value and worth. In doing this, their ego was more exposed instead of hers.
- Show respect. It’s hard to show respect to others who don’t show it to you. But Allison wanted to be a respectful person which meant acting that way even when it is hard to do so. She planned out a couple of remarks that she could say even when she was being disrespected such as, “Sorry you feel that way.”
- Titles matter. This is a hard one for Allison because her brother was constantly shoving his medical degree in her face. So, she decided to call him, “Doc” when they were together. This simple change strokes his ego and makes any further snide comments seem petty.
- Actively listen. In the past, Allison discovered that she tuned-out her parents when they were talking to her especially when it was something that she had no interest in hearing. Perhaps this contributed to their child-like treatment of her. Instead, she decided to really listen to what they were saying and how they were saying it without any judgment.
- Stay positive. One of the strategies that Allison used at work when she was feeling uncomfortable with someone was to say something positive when she felt negative. This did not come easily at first and even sounded awkward, but with practice, it became more natural. In anticipation of numerous unpleasant feelings, Allison had a compliment lined up for each family member.
- Empathize honestly. It is easier to show empathy for those who also show it in return. It is far more difficult to do it with a person who lacks it all together. This was challenging for Allison, but she made it a personal goal to show even a small amount of empathy for
- Anticipate resistance. Allison so badly wanted a peaceful time that she failed to anticipate the very thing that was a constant: resistance. No matter what she said, her remarks were met with some type of opposition. Changing her expectation allowed her to see things more clearly and less defensively.
- Speak carefully. Instead of worrying about what her family members were saying, Allison decided to focus on what she said. This simple change in direction freed her from their trappings of comparison, belittling, and humiliation.
- Ask questions. Another tactic that was useful at work when Allison wanted to take the attention off herself was to ask questions of others. This gave her some time to reflect and digest the information before responding to an insulting remark.
- Don’t react. In the past, Allison would grow weary during family gatherings and eventually say something that at the moment she enjoyed but later regretted. To prevent this from happening, Allison decided to give herself a time-out and write-out what she wanted to say. This released the negative energy without causing damage to a fragile relationship.
- Be flexible. Allison’s preconceived notions of her family members meant that she was more rigid around them than she wanted. Being flexible meant that she had to leave behind her prejudices about them and see them with open eyes.
- Save face. “Wow, that’s so uncharacteristic of you, is everything OK?” Allison rehearsed this line to allow her family members to save face after they made a condescending remark about her. This simple tactic takes the tension out of the moment and allows space for back-pedaling.
- Mirror responses. Rather then dive-in with a quick response or assume she knew the rest of the comment, Allison paused and mirrored back some of the comments. This opens-up the conversation for clarification and increased understanding.
- Focus on action. It matters less what a person says and more what a person does. To incorporate this principle, Allison decided that she wasn’t going to let the patronizing remarks cause her to physically exit the conversation. Rather, she was going to stay present and engaged in the discussion.
- End well. Going into the event, Allison planned several remarks on how lovely the meal was or how interesting the conversation. She decided to plan a gracious exit that was honest yet kind and so honored the person she wanted to be.
By following these strategies and ending the dreaded family gathering well, Allison gained a new confidence that was like how she felt at work and home. These tips can work for you as well but be patient, it sometimes takes several events to gain the self-assurance that was lost all those years ago.