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Navigating Tough Relationships This Holiday Season

Have you ever tried to get something created or accomplished, but so many distractions, roadblocks, competing needs and unavoidable circumstances got in the way that you began to believe they’re not mere coincidences?

That’s exactly how I’ve felt for the past two weeks every time I have tried to write this blog. The fact that I’m writing it on a less-than-smooth flight from North Carolina to St. Louis should clue you in on the heights (no pun intended) my distractions had hit. Apparently, I needed to be in an airplane, 38,000 feet off the ground, with no internet (yep- it’s currently not working) or phone and nowhere else to go for two hours in order to “get ‘er done!”

Originally, I had the best of intentions to make this a fun and engaging read, but we’re in crunch time now and I feel it more important to get this information to your inbox than to sit on it while waiting (hoping?) for some creative epiphany to hit.

So, buckle up as we enter what might be some bumpy and unchartered waters for some of us. Let’s talk about navigating challenging relationships during the holidays.

The Facts Are In

Did you know that between the months of October and January, individuals report more emotional eating, drinking, isolating and avoiding than at any other time of year? Additionally, self-reporting surveys indicate an increase in depression and anxiety, along with higher numbers of individuals feeling the need to pursue counseling.

Can you guess what a main driver for all these challenges might be?

While the holidays can bring out the best in people, along with opportunities to connect and enjoy family and friends in special ways, for many people this is also the time of year when relational tensions run high and the uncertainty of navigating some relationships effectively can be difficult. I said “difficult” but not “impossible.” There are skills we can utilize to set ourselves up for less stress, more connection and healthier relationships this holiday season. The first (and arguably, foundational) skill to develop to help us navigate those challenging relationships is the ability to manage expectations.

The Wisdom to Know the Difference

One of my favorite prayers to recite this time of year is the serenity prayer. “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Aaaaaaamen.

If you slow it down and really think about the words of this prayer, it can offer perspective for our relationships with others…and with ourselves.

Let’s take this a step further. Grab a piece of paper and a pen (pencil, crayon, etc.). At the top of the page write the initials of a difficult person you will engage with around the holidays. Now, draw a circle in the middle of page large enough to write in, leaving room outside the circle to write, as well.

Next, I want you to think about what makes this relationship a struggle and with each thought that comes to mind, I want you to think about what part of it you have control over. Anything that falls within your scope of control, write it within the circle. Anything that is outside of your control, write it outside the circle.

Once you’ve written down all the issues you can think of, go back and check to make sure everything is placed correctly. Finally, since it’s likely that several items you listed are neither 0% nor 100% within your control, go back over your listed one more time and place appropriate percentages of control next to items both inside and outside the circle.

If you are a praying person, an additional last step would be to pray over the list and consider what you would like to give God control over in the relationship. (This doesn’t mean you’re going to abdicate your responsibility or tolerate harmful behavior from someone else. It simply means you’re acknowledging God’s ability to intervene and both of your needs for God’s help in the relationship.)

Keep this list in mind as you read through the rest of this blog. It will help you as you build the rest of your skills for managing your relationships this holiday season and beyond.

Boundaries, Boundaries, Boundaries

To effectively discuss boundaries, I think it’s helpful to begin with what boundaries are and what might classify as a boundary violation. A couple of simple and helpful ways to define boundaries are:

· What is and isn’t your responsibility to deal with

· Separating your feelings from someone else’s feelings

· Taking and relinquishing ownership appropriately

· Respecting another’s person and personal space

In addition to these simple explanations of boundaries, let’s list some things that we would consider boundary violations.

· Letting someone’s feeling dictate your emotional state

· Taking responsibility for someone else’s mistakes, emotions, etc.

· Over-functioning and/or people pleasing

· Unwanted invasion of personal space and/or physical boundaries

It’s important to keep in mind that boundaries should be commensurate with the level of safety you experience in the relationship. Not every difficult relationship will require you to go “no contact” with a person. (Although, some might, and we will discuss that shortly.)

When you’re considering your boundaries, try not to use too much anger as your motivation. There is a fine line between anger that empowers, and anger that does more harm than good. Take time to consider your boundaries. Think about what your goals are and what is most beneficial for you, as well as what sends the message you want the other person to experience.

Setting boundaries based purely on anger can cause us to overshoot what we really need. Then when we go back and try to change them, it can send a message to the other person that we don’t really mean what we say, creating the potential for them to violate our boundaries when we really do mean it.

With these thoughts in mind, you can decide what you want your boundaries to be.

You get to decide the boundaries that fit best for you. It might be that you want to limit the topics of conversation so as to avoid arguments or feeling pressure (“when are you gonna settle down?” or “I can’t believe you voted for that person!”)

Practice how you want to address a boundary violation with someone who is emotionally safe for you. (“That isn’t something I’m willing to talk about. Let’s discuss ___ instead.”)

It might be that you choose to attend holiday functions a little later, once all the guests have arrived so you can have other people to talk with. Maybe you want to leave early in the evening, so as not to be the last one there.

Make a plan with whomever is attending the gathering with you so as to avoid awkward moments. You can even have a phrase or word that lets the other know you’re ready to leave ahead of schedule, or, conversely- a word or phrase that lets them know its going well and you’re ok to stay longer.

Helping Your Kids Find Their Boundaries

This will come as no surprise to you, but I can’t let this topic go without discussing the opportunity to be a cycle-breaker. It’s possible that the reason you struggle with boundaries now is because either you were never allowed to have them as a child, or you didn’t see healthy boundaries modeled for you. Possibly both.

But now you can break that cycle by not only modeling healthy boundaries for your kids but helping them create their own. You can also set them up for success by pre-emptively addressing it with the necessary parties. (“Emma will not be giving hugs this year, so when she refuses a hug, please respect that.” Or “Taylor is not required to finish all of his food before dessert, so please do not try to enforce the ‘clean plate’ club.”)

Fill Your Cup Before You Go

On our best days in our healthiest relationships, we can’t pour from an empty cup. Imagine how much harder it is to try and do this in relationships that feel draining. That is why it’s important to set yourself up for success by filling your emotional cup before you spend time with individuals who leave you feeling emotionally depleted.

Making time for celebrations and traditions with loved ones before or even after engaging in your more challenging relationships can make all the difference!

An important part of filling our cups is to remember that we are integrated beings. There are a myriad of factors that can contribute to our emotional health and well-being. Consider this basic list as a reminder to pay attention to how you’re doing: mind, body and spirit.

In the days leading up to your event(s):

· Get plenty of sleep (Sleep deprivation leads to low emotional capacity)

· Eat well and stay hydrated (Over-indulging in sweets and all the “good stuff” can significantly affect your emotional state)

· Pray and/or meditate (It literally changes the brain)

· Practice gratitude (Increases our capacity for positivity and emotional tolerance)

· Move your body (Walks in nature- even when it’s cold, help body, mind and spirit)

· Volunteer/Donate (Giving and serving promote oxytocin and dopamine)

· Journal your feelings and intentions (There is research on this! It makes a big difference)

· Limit alcohol (Alcohol can increase depression and post alcohol induced anxiety is real)

These practices won’t necessarily make all your relational challenges go away, but they will change you and how effectively you’re able to manage your interactions with your difficult people.

Loving Others Where They Are and Leaving Them There

For just a minute, go back and look at the Circle of Control you created earlier. (If you didn’t do it, now would be a good time. 😉) Now, ask yourself a question: Without sacrificing any of your boundaries, would you be willing to offer just a bit more compassion and grace for your “sandpaper people” this holiday season?

I’m not asking you to allow for boundary violations, nor am I asking you to consider tolerating any abuse or disrespect. Rather, what I’m asking you to consider is the possibility of loving someone where they are and being willing to leave them there.

You see, sometimes when we set boundaries and have the tough conversations and do all the things to set ourselves up for success, there’s often this part of us that secretly hopes our new and healthier behaviors will change the other person’s behaviors too.

Does that ever happen? Yep, sometimes it does. Should that be the goal of our new behaviors? Decidedly, no.

Remember, it all starts with our expectations and what we can (and can’t) control. If we hold on to the hope that the other person will change and they don’t, we build resentment and frustration toward them which ultimately prevents us from loving them where they are. If you can hold on to your hope for their ability to change without it impacting your ability to love them and without attempting to manipulate them into a behavioral change- then by all means, hold on to it! In fact, I will be hoping right along with you.

Assessing Access

I saved this for last because it is undoubtedly the most difficult part of navigating the holidays. What we’ve talked about up to this point can be highly effective in helping you navigate the holidays. But what about when the other person leaves you no choice but to go full on no contact?

This is never an easy decision. And rarely is it one that a person makes after a “spat.” Rather, the choice to disconnect completely from a family relationship is typically the result of repeated attempts to create boundaries and emotional safety for yourself with little to no acceptance from the other party. If you are finding yourself in that position this holiday season, let me say that I’m so sorry you’re going through this. I’ve been there and understand that it is deeply painful at any time of year- and especially during the holidays. I pray you find some help in making this difficult decision, and some support on the other side of it.

If you’re someone who is wondering if you’ve reached this place in your relationship, I want to strongly encourage you to seek the help of a counselor. There is much to consider, like emotional, mental and physical safety as well as what the goal of the no-contact will be and how you will communicate the parameters of the no-contact to the other person.

If you find that no-contact is best for you, please make sure to have support on both the front and back end of the decision and make sure to preserve relationships with those involved with both parties, to the best of your abilities. Remember, you don’t need to explain your decision to anyone. You just need to do what’s right for you and what keeps you safe.

Finally, if you know of someone who is facing the difficult choice to go no contact with someone close to them, please be kind and supportive toward them. You can even show your support for them by inviting them to your healthy, holiday table.

Whatever tough relational choices you find yourself needing to make today, I hope what I’ve shared here will prove valuable to you. And if you know someone else who might also be facing a tough relational choice this holiday season, consider sharing this with them (you could become excellent, healthy support for one another!).

And to you, my friend, as you are engaging in the good, hard, brave work of healing, know that I am praying for you, I am cheering you on, and I’m so glad you’ve decided to ultimately choose yourself.

If you’re interested in pursuing help to navigate your challenging relationships this holiday season and beyond, check out Resources — Gina Birkemeier, LPC, NCC. And, for some excellent resources on relationships, check out the work of Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend, along with the work of Dr. Lindsay Gibson. (This link is to her original book- but I also recommend her related book that provides practical tools as well.) For more on breaking cycles, I invite you to consider Generations Deep: Unmasking Inherited Dysfunction and Trauma to Rewrite Our Stories Through Faith and Therapy along with the companion workbook/journal, Generations Deep: Write Your Healing Story Journal.

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