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Why do holidays bring out the worst versions of ourselves?

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William McKenna, M.S. - published on 11/12/16

3 Things to do to avoid conflicts and put yourself on the path to family peace during Thanksgiving and Christmas

Question: Every year it seems that Thanksgiving and Christmas are filled with more drama than joy. I simply do not understand why this happens! No matter what I do, being around my extended family is a trial. Why do the holidays always seem to bring out the worst in people, and what can I do to make this year different?

Response: The dilemma you find yourself in is one of the more common experiences many of us have with our extended families. Sadly, what should be times of gratitude and joy turn into the experiences that you describe. Things are said, feelings are hurt, and people make rash decisions that can lead to cracks within the family structure from which recovery is difficult. While there are a variety of reasons as to why negative experiences occur during the holidays, the most common stem from our idealization of the “perfect holiday” as well as unresolved family conflicts and tensions.

We all have thoughts and fantasies about how Thanksgiving and Christmas should go. We form these beliefs during our childhood via movies, popular culture, and our family experience, and we use these beliefs as anchoring points during these holidays. These convictions can range from what we eat to how we are allowed to interact with one another. As previously mentioned, when our beliefs are challenged we can become very upset and possibly lash out against others. We do this because we are losing our perceived anchor. What also makes the holidays so complex is that everyone is fighting for their anchors to remain in place. Additionally, when in-laws are added to a family a whole new set of anchors are added that may be utterly foreign.

On top of our holiday visions being questioned, there tends to be unresolved rivalry between siblings, cousins, and in-laws. Such a reality, though, does not mean that conflict will become overt during family gatherings. Instead, conflict can remain in a passive-aggressive mode, which ultimately can cause more problems than overt conflict. Holiday conflicts tend to center around unresolved feuds, such as how one sibling or cousin never apologized for expressing a cutting remark towards someone else. Contrary to popular belief, allowing sleeping dogs lie with unresolved hurts never helps such hurts to heal. Instead, talking through issues, taking responsibility, and apologizing is the path to family peace.

While each family is different and rarely does one size fit all, the following are some concrete steps you may consider taking as the holiday season approaches:

  1. Prior to each event, take time alone to remind yourself of the reason for Thanksgiving and Christmas. If you plan ahead, then it will be easier for you to remind yourself during the event to focus on the real significance of each holiday.
  2. Be sure to take plenty of breaks. While this may seem rude in the moment, weigh the possible outcomes: if you take a break during a heated moment you may avoid saying something you regret rather than remaining engaged in the conversation which may lead to a harsh exchange.
  3. Remember that the family is made to be a community of love. As stated earlier, if you have an unresolved issue with someone in your family, attempt to resolve it before the holidays. Thus, you both will be more disposed towards helping the younger members of the family receive an education in truth and charity.

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