You know how it goes: After preparing your best dish for the annual potluck and making the journey home, you walk in the door, immediately greeted by smiling faces. This is going to be a good visit, you think. But as family members usher you into the kitchen, they start peppering you with questions about your day—and then, your life. "Didn’t you invite anyone? Don’t you have anyone to invite? The clock is ticking, you know!"
"Why are you wearing that?" "Have you considered getting a real job yet?" "You know I love your hair so much more when it’s…" and you start wishing for earplugs. In movies, family gatherings are a special, pleasant time with the people who love and support us. But in reality, it often feels like our relatives wish we were anyone but ourselves. As if there’s always something wrong, something missing with us.
Still: No matter how hard the holidays are, we always find moments to enjoy. Holiday eat-a-thons. Playing games, watching movies, overly excited gift exchanges. It can be tempting to just skip the season altogether, but if we did, we’d miss out on all the good memories.
Here are a few ways to get through the holiday season—without biting someone’s head off.
1. Schedule plenty of "me time."
Remember, the holidays should be a holiday for you too. Make sure that even though you’re visiting family, you take a well-deserved break. Sherry Pagoto, Ph.D., says that one handy way to offset family-related stress is to plan activities that bring you happiness. Hitting the gym, going on a date with your significant other, or spending the night out with friends are all good ways to show some self-love during the holidays.
Don’t feel guilty for booking a massage or a pedicure, or for spending an extra hour or two in bed, either: You deserve to rest and relax. Plus, me time gives you a great way to get out of a busy house for a few hours.
If you’re at your family’s house and find yourself getting frustrated, a quick excursion—even to the grocery store—can be a great time to grab a few snacks, blast some of your favorite music in the car, and cool down before re-engaging with your family.
2. Know the playbook—and plan in advance.
It sucks when our relatives try to change us. But the same way we want them to accept us as we are, we should do our best to accept them (even if it’s super-duper difficult). Take things in stride and learn the "playbook" of all those family members who tend to get on your nerves.
For example: If you know that Aunt Betty loves to make comments about your appearance, then anticipate that and plan a response. Think about what you might say to stop a conversation from going too far by using "'no' statements."
In the context of family gatherings, no statements can be used to navigate discussions and effectively set boundaries. "I often recommend people use similar phrasing to an 'I statement' when they say 'no,'" says Jennifer Litner, MSMFT, a marriage and family therapist. "For example, 'I really appreciate you thinking of me and I am unable to make it to dinner tonight.'"
Before you leave your house, practice saying "no" in the mirror with a smile and a firm tone of voice. "When someone asks you questions or makes requests you feel uncomfortable with, you can use 'no' statements to politely decline," Litner says. "For instance, you could say, "'I feel really uncomfortable discussing that right now,' then suggest other topics that you feel more comfortable with," Litner says. "That way, you can assert yourself without rejecting your family member outright."
3. Find common ground.
The larger the gathering, the higher the likelihood of a disagreement between family members. Avoid hot button topics from the start in order to prevent full-on brawls, and focus on what you do share. You might absolutely disagree with Uncle Richard on gun control and taxes (and... basically everything else), but maybe you love his cooking. Why not start a conversation about the recipes he’s tried recently?
Even the closest family members can disagree on different issues. That doesn’t mean they don’t share common interests or hobbies. The holidays are a time of connection, and the best way to keep them pleasant is to keep that spirit alive. Focus on what everyone can share. That way, the bonds that hold you together can last—maybe even past the holidays.
Theodora Sarah Abigail is a beating heart in a warm body. She works as a writer and poet in the wild, mechanical city of Jakarta, Indonesia. You can join her as she stumbles through life by following her on her blog and on Instagram.