Gretchen Rubin

Spending Time with Some Difficult People over the Holidays? Consider These Tips.

Back by popular demand...some ideas for dealing with difficult people over the holidays. I've posted this before, but every year around this time, there's a spike in interest about ways to handle tricky situations with relatives, neighbors, and friends. Consider:

1. Think about how topics that seem innocuous to you might upset someone else. You may think you’re showing a polite interest, but some questions will rub a person the wrong way: “So do you have a boyfriend yet?” “When are you two going to get married/start a family?” “Can you afford that?” “When are you going to get a real job?” Show an interest with more open-ended questions, like my favorite:  “What's keeping you busy these days?” (also a good question if you can't remember details about a person's life that you really should know). Also…

2. Don’t drink much alcohol. It can seem festive to fill up your glass, but it’s easy to lose track of how much you’re drinking. Alcohol makes some people feel merry, but it also makes some people feel combative, or self-pitying, or lowers their inhibitions in a destructive way. I basically had to give up drinking because alcohol makes me so belligerent. And if other people seem to be trying to avoid or curb their drinking, don’t make a big deal of it or urge them to indulge.

3. As best you can, play your part in the tradition. For some people, traditions are very, very important; for others, no. You may feel irritated by your brother’s insistence on having exactly the same food every Thanksgiving. Try to be patient and play your part. In the long run, traditions and rituals tend to help sustain happiness and family bonds. On the other hand…

4. If you’re the one who wants everything to be perfect, try to ease up on yourself and everyone else, so you can enjoy the day, whatever happens. Make the best of the situation. Even if the day isn’t exactly the way you hoped it would be, try to enjoy what it is. My mother once told me, “The things that go wrong often make the best memories,” and it’s really true.

5. Don’t stuff yourself. Research shows that in fact, most people add just one pound during the holidays – but then they never lose it. You’ll have more fun if you’re not feeling uncomfortably full and then guilty about having eaten too much. Think about strategies for staying in control of holiday eating; feeling bad about having eaten too much can make you feel irritable and angry, which spills over into your interactions with other people. And, in the same vein as #2, if you notice that someone is skipping the mashed potatoes, don’t make it harder for them. (I discuss this issue at length in Before and After.)

6. Find some fun. One of my Secrets of Adulthood is Just because something is fun for someone else doesn’t mean it’s fun for you, and vice versa. If this holiday time is meant to be fun, make sure you’re spending at least some time doing something that’s fun for you. Working in the kitchen, playing touch football, sitting around talking, running errands, watching TV — these things may or may not be fun for you, no matter how other people feel.

7. Find reasons to be grateful. Be thankful that you get to cook, or that you don’t have to cook. Be thankful that you get to travel, or that you don’t have to travel. Be thankful for your family or your friends. Find something. Studies show that gratitude is a major happiness booster. Also, feeling grateful toward someone crowds out negative emotions like resentment and annoyance.

Wait, you might be thinking, these strategies don’t tell me how to deal with difficult people — they tell me how to behave myself. Well, guess what! You can’t do anything to change other people; you can only change yourself. Also, in many situations, people behave in a difficult way in reaction to something else. So you may think your niece flies off the handle without any reason, but she’s furious because she thinks you’re needling her about her job. If you behave differently, she will too.

Have you found any helpful strategies for dealing with difficult people over the holidays? What more would you add?

You may also want to ask yourself...Are you the difficult one?

I discuss this issue at greater length in Happier at Home, chapters on "family" and "neighborhood."

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