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How to Deal with Dreaded Family Gatherings

By Debbie Mandel

The holidays are almost upon us and those dreaded family gatherings highlight how vulnerable we still are to criticism and the old prescribed roles we act out. Recently, I did a TV show about managing stress-filled holiday gatherings and most of the program was devoted to callers-in seeking strategies for dealing with belligerent and stubborn family members. Some were traveling across the country and at great expense, yet afraid of disappointment. Clearly, it wasnít going to be jingle all the way.

If we want to reconnect with feuding family, or desire to try even harder to get along because we feel cut adrift without our parents, brothers, sisters, children and grandchildren - our genetic legacy, then we must perceive these gatherings for what they really are: learning experiences. We canít change where we came from. However, we can change where we are going. Since early childhood, we learned how to get along by sharing. For when we share with others, we truly give to ourselves! However, many of us are stingy with compassion and forgiveness when it comes to our own family members and therefore we do not feel good about ourselves.

Part of the problem is that we feel selfish and entitled! People have to speak to us a certain way, give us gifts that we evaluate and measure and then there are our lofty expectations. ďOkay, so we want compliments and respect. Whatís wrong with that?Ē Absolutely, nothing, as long as we return the favor!

So, donít lecture your brother that he has spoiled his children. Instead, take your nieces and nephews with you to do some volunteer work. Actions speak louder than words and you can establish a new family holiday ritual. The children will feel enriched and special.

So, you are still overweight and cringe at the thought of dodging comments like, ďShould you be having a piece of pecan pie, dear?Ē Your weight doesnít define who you are. Simply smile and say, ďYes, human beings are not creatures of deprivation. I would like to celebrate with you and feel deliciously happy with a small slice of pecan pie.Ē

If you plan on attending family gatherings, here are some suggestions to transform them from prison riots into joyous celebrations:
  • Realize that you canít change anyone. However, you can change your personal dynamics and how you react to others.
  • Lose your attitude! If you expect insults, or negative situations, you will fulfill your own negative expectations. You will find a way to make them happen.
  • Be humble. Feel as though any positive comment or small gift holds the power of a magical transformation for you. You will be surprised how little kindnesses accumulate. Be grateful and exchange kind, loving remarks. Make sure that you prepare beforehand and say something nice to everyone. Positive people attract positive people.
  • Donít feel diminished about your work, your financial situation or your love life. Believe that you are exactly where you are supposed to be in life. If you donít feel small and unaccomplished, no one can erode who you are and you wonít feel trivialized or insulted.
  • Even the worst family members who make you feel uncomfortable about yourself, are your greatest teachers! Although that is not their objective, ironically, they are teaching you how to become better and to boost those cracks in your self-esteem and in your heart. People who push your buttons can serve as your mirrors.
  • A good compromise to an extended stay would be to sleep in a motel. Think of the visit as a getaway and plan fun activities around it.
  • Introduce a new fun ritual to improve the energy.
  • Donít do what you really donít want to do. Express yourself honestly, assertively, but not aggressively. Itís okay to set boundaries. Because if you are accommodating when you donít want to be, you will eventually erupt.
  • In some cases choosing to avoid the whole unnerving family drama which could derail into a shouting match might be a better alternative! Because life is short, we need to spend our time happily and positively, rather than waste our time feeling angry and drained.

Debbie Mandel, MA is the author of Turn On Your Inner Light: Fitness for Body, Mind and Soul, a stress-reduction specialist, motivational speaker, a personal trainer and mind/body lecturer. She is the host of the weekly Turn On Your Inner Light Show on WGBB 1240AM in New York City , produces a weekly wellness newsletter, and has been featured on radio/ TV and print media. To learn more visit: