Based on the bright-red Starbucks cups and gift guides everywhere you look, it's safe to say the holiday season is here. For many of us, that means loads of family time—with parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, in-laws, and even that second cousin you only see once a year.
Love ‘em or hate ‘em, some of these folks feel they have the right to weigh in on your life. Whether they voice a pointed opinion about your love life, your job, where you’re living, or any little decision you’ve made along the way, it’s easy to feel tempted to throw your apple pie à la mode in their face.
But there’s a better way. (And wouldn’t you rather actually eat your dessert instead?) We know it can be tricky to keep all that questioning from getting under your skin, especially if you’re trapped at a Thanksgiving dinner table, holiday party, or at your significant other's parents’ house for a long weekend (gulp!). But if you arrive armed with these tips for dealing with doubters, you’ll do just fine—promise.
Step 1: Know It’s Got Little to Do With You
“Most people say or do what they do because of their own issues—not because of yours,” says Preston Ni, communication studies professor and author of How to Communicate Effectively and Handle Difficult People. Many times people resort to gossiping or problem-finding for stimulation because they simply don’t have much else that’s interesting in their lives.
They could also simply be looking out for number one and bashing you in the process. “Questioning others’ life choices can be a way for people to prove their own superiority while protecting themselves from criticism in the process,“ says Alan King, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of North Dakota who has researched judgmental personality types.
When they see in someone else something they’re lacking, or wish they had, they’ll feel a need to criticize it.
Finally, jealousy is another reason other people can be total jerks. “Highly critical people are often not happy with themselves,” says Christina Hibbert, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and author of This Is How We Grow. “When they see in someone else something they’re lacking, or wish they had, they’ll feel a need to criticize it. Their fault-finding may be a projection of how they’re worried they’ll fall short.”
The upside to all this psychological jiu-jitsu? “Once you realize that what someone else is saying is really just about them, you’ll find their words don’t disempower you as much,” Ni says. (Cue a big exhale.)
Step 2: Realize What This Is Bringing Out in You
If you’re really upset by a meddler, it’s likely because what they’re saying is triggering something you’re already insecure about, Hibbert says. (Note: This does not confirm said meddler’s expressed views are objectively correct. You may just share an insecurity. #Twinsies?)
“When we say ‘someone provoked me,’ what we’re really saying is we already feel some of that doubt, or disappointment, in ourselves,” Hibbert explains.
Note these sore spots, and process the difficult feelings embedded inside them at a later date.
Herein lies the opportunity to gain some further insight into why we might be hung up or self-conscious about our choices. (Should I have turned down that higher-paying but soul-killing job? Is this partner a perfect fit? Maybe I am a bad person for not spending enough time with my family/friends/in-laws!)
Note these sore spots, and process the difficult feelings embedded inside them at a later date, Hibbert suggests—say, in therapy or over a few heart-to-heart sessions with a trusted pal or significant other, not the Thanksgiving dinner table.
But as long as you’re still stuck in an awkward encounter, "remind yourself that you are not the emotion you’re feeling,” Hibbert says. One way to gain some composure is to try locating that feeling inside your body, she adds, and then imagine yourself leaning away from it. This can help you hang in there as it washes over you and eventually subsides in intensity.
Step 3: Try This Language
At the end of the day, your success in navigating other peoples’ opinions about how you should be living your life relies in large part on setting appropriate boundaries, Hibbert says.
A few pro tips on how to put ‘em in place effectively? According to Ni, we would do well to follow this four-step process.
1. Use “I” or “it” language.
Think: “I really prefer to be single” or “It’s very important for me to focus on school or my career right now.”
It’s harder for someone to argue that something isn’t important to you, Ni says. Plus, these types of responses don’t sound like you’re attacking a criticizer back: “You’re stating firmly what you hold to be true or what you feel without further provoking the questioner,” Ni says.
2. Say “thank you.”
You may be surprised how great a conversation-ender a cordial expression of gratitude can be. A simple “thanks for your input” or “I’m really OK with [whatever decision], but thank you for your concern” can be a smooth way to get the point across that you’re not interested in keeping the dialog about your life choices going, Ni says.
3. Switch gears.
You have the ability to change the topic at any point, Ni says. Following the "thanks but no thanks" hint above, try asking the questioner about something in their life, commenting on how great the food tastes, or lobbing a question at another member of the family who happens to be nearby.
4. Plan your exit.
Ni advises avoiding sitting next to a troublesome relative or acquaintance, leaving early if you must, or making arrangements with one or two family members to help swoop in and defend you—or shift the topic—at a pre-agreed upon signal (this pudding is delicious!).
And don’t forget you can always remove yourself from the situation if the emotions involved get too hot to handle, Hibbert adds. Try politely excusing yourself from the table (or gathering area at a party) to refill your drink, get water, or go to the bathroom. Once there, she says, try practicing some breathing exercises, text or call a friend, or put in earbuds and listen to a calming tune.
“The best thing to do is not to react, which makes us feel worse and inflames already tense situations,” she says. “If you need to take a time-out in order to cool down, remember that’s always an option.”
Step 4: Come Armed With These Comebacks
Keeping calm enough under pressure but still not sure what to say? Here are expert-approved phrases for a few common scenarios that'll help keep you from crying into your mulled cider by the end of the night.
When Uncle Joe asks why you’re still working at a start-up/don't have a higher-wage gig:
- I’m actually really happy at this company. It’s a great match for my skill set, and I’m making enough to get by and enjoy life.
- Well, if you know of other places that would offer an equally engaging/fun/meaningful environment, I'd love to be put in touch with someone.
When cousin Katie won’t let up on wondering aloud why you’re still single:
- I made a pact with myself to put my career first for a few years until I’ve established myself. And then I look forward to getting back on “the market.”
- I want to be sure I find someone who shares my values, goals, and interests. I’ve met some people, but you know when it’s right, and I haven’t felt that yet. I’ll keep you posted, though!
When Grandma tells you you’re waiting too long to have kids:
- I want to be sure I check some more personal to-do’s off my list before I devote my life to raising another human being. But I’ll let you know when I’m done!
- I appreciate your encouragement, but I don’t know that kids are in my cards. But if that changes, I’ll take the opportunity to seek you out for advice.
When that distant relative (how are we related, anyway?) comments on your appearance, weight, or eating habits:
- Thanks for your concern. I feel pretty good though, so I don’t see a problem.
- Sorry, I think I missed how my appearance/weight fit into this conversation. Let's move on, shall we?
Everyone’s got insecurities. They can make us sensitive to others’ criticisms or make others pester us about our life choices. This holiday season, save yourself some exasperation by remembering that whatever you’re being interrogated about has much more to do with the nagger than with you. You may just be able to feel enough empathy toward them to keep it from getting under your skin. And if someone's meddling continues to hit a sore spot, come prepped with some potential phrases you can use to shut 'em down—nicely.