A Primer on How to Avoid Killing One’s Family This Holiday Season (or any Other Time)

When I was 17 years old, I brought my high school sweetheart to Thanksgiving at our house. Deep down I knew it was a mistake, but being young and dumb and thinking that your first significant relationship lasts forever, I thought it best to let her at least see my family’s…quirks.

My aunt decided that dinner was the perfect opportunity to talk about religion and politics, especially those “Goddamned Jews in Congress.” My sister broke down into uncontrollable sobbing after she found my cousin playing Atari with my sister’s boyfriend, thinking she was trying to begin an affair with him. And my grandfather astutely pointed out that the only people more useless in the world than Italians were the French. Given that my girlfriend was exactly ½ Italian and ½ French, I’m sure she found the comment quite charming.

Year after year crazy shit like that happened during the holidays. Families are simply chaotic, and there’s something about relatives coming together that screams “be as insane as possible!”

Apparently I’m not alone, because it’s around this time of year that many of my clients begin to ask questions about the holidays. Specifically, “how the hell am I going to deal with so-and-so’s behavior at the dinner table or at the Christmas party?” Whether their personal experiences are as bizarre as my own is irrelevant; it seems like almost all of us can relate to the dysfunctionality of group dynamics.

Weddings, funerals, and holidays tend to bring out both the best and the worst in people. These events almost invariably turn into something other than the original, true intent of the occasion. This is because people are inherently takers, not givers, so at a deep, possibly unconscious level, we have our own agendas for these events. The bride’s family insists on inviting the distant aunt that everyone hates, a brother starts talking about how he got screwed in the will, and someone simply has to bring their own, individual-sized casserole because the host always overcooks the turkey.

So what can we do about our families who drive us to down eight scotches or head to the garage to find a machete for immediate death to all? Unfortunately nothing, because the sad reality is that people don’t change unless they want to. But what we can do is change how we think about their behavior.

If you’ve read my twitter posts, then you know how I got myself into trouble. In the simplest terms, I decided that people should behave a certain way, and therefore it was law. And of course when I demand that people not be offensive, rude or even passive-aggressive, I’m miserable, because that’s what many people do. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, I insist that people conform to the arbitrary standards I’ve set.

Now you may say, “but I don’t do any of those things,” and you may be right. That’s actually great, as you have evolved to a new level. But because you have matured doesn’t put you in any position to say what others should do. If you are very pro-social that is outstanding, but if you think that gives you license to demand other people be the same, you are simply begging for frustration.

So this year, you’re not going to do anything. You’ll plan on the same chaos, neuroticism and sheer craziness that your family has done every year. You’ll radically accept that this is the way it is, the way it always has been and the way it probably always will be. You’ll make no efforts to change anyone, because unless a person wants to be an active agent in the change process, it just doesn’t happen. So you won’t ask your uncle to stop after thirteen beers, you won’t even try to convince your mom to not fight with her sister over which type of pie to serve, and you’ll drop the entire plan to get your cousin to use a napkin instead of his sleeve at the table.

Per usual, I’m not talking about the rationalized, intellectual, “sure sure, don’t use ‘should’ statements.” I’m challenging you to push yourself to a greater degree of mental health. This involves stepping away from the glorified temper tantrum of “be what I want you to be!” Challenge yourself to see that humans are created to address their own needs first, that they are flawed and neurotic, that they won’t act the way you want them to. And when you do this, when you truly relinquish those old cognitions about human nature and behavior, you’ll feel better.

Trust me on this one, I’m kind of a doctor. And have a great Thanksgiving.

(Visited 90 times, 1 visits today)

13 Responses to “A Primer on How to Avoid Killing One’s Family This Holiday Season (or any Other Time)”

  1. Radical Acceptance….DBT? 😀

  2. Tracie says:

    It’s a great relief to finally say “Yeah, they’re crazy, so I’m going to just accept it and think of this day as having a front row seat for the Jerry Springer Show.” Unfortunately, sometimes the crazy branches out in a way that’s hard to peacefully accept; the family members get a little too rowdy, or the dinner table comments get a little too vicious. There’s sideshow crazy and then there’s mean crazy, and if things hit that A Very Special Lifetime Movie level just GTFO because it’s probably not worth the trauma to your psyche.
    Thankfully this year we have a surrogate family to eat dinner with, including my friend’s mom who fusses over me like my biological mother should (“Young lady, how many more tattoos did you get this year?” *sigh, Mom-esque eyeroll*) and her husband’s father, who watches the National Dog Show with me.

  3. Tracie says:

    Oh, and have a wonderful and safe holiday, Doc Rob!

  4. Teri says:

    Thankfully this Thanksgiving it will only be my parents, siblings and various girl/boyfriends. So drama free.
    However, starting next weekend I have 2 bridal showers, 3 Christmas’s and 1 wedding. This won’t end until New Years Day. I am going to set back and enjoy all of the drama that both sides of the family cooks up.
    I hope that everyone has a safe and enjoyable holiday season.

  5. Cassandra says:

    So, Dr. Rob … did your advice work? Were you successful in reaching a greater degree of mental this year?

    Hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving!

  6. Rob Dobrenski says:

    @Cassandra: It definitely went better this year. I remembered my post just as I was reaching for the heat in my coat pocket. That kept me in check.

  7. Marie says:

    I love this post! The “radical acceptance” really resonates with me. We have a huge crowd at Thanksgiving — the “in-laws in-laws” if you will. With so much family in the area, we’ve found it’s simplest just to invite everyone and we all just get along for the day.

    Now I actually look forward to it. It’s fun.

    I invited a friend this year who’s family is far away, and was describing the gathering as a “blast,” and then started going through the cast of characters…

    “Oh, my MIL is so sweet. You’ll love her. She gets really anxious, though, so don’t be surprised if she starts running around the kitchen shouting advice while I make the gravy. She means well.

    Oh, and there’s ass-hole Al. Don’t mind him. He’s just really insecure, so he likes to make inappropriate comments about everyone else — about their weight gain, hair loss, whatever. We all just ignore him.”

    And on and on it goes!

    (And, yes, she did come and have a lovely time. 🙂 )

  8. Anonymous says:

    This is one of my favorite sites. Amazing job moderating. And insightful articles. Rarely does a blog causes me to bring it up in coversation. I hope everyone has an amazing holiday season.

  9. Katie D. says:

    Rob, the question is, how do I forward this to my roommate (who recently ranted at me because I don’t go about relationships the same way she does) without it being painfully obvious that I’m telling her to let me do things my own way because, like everyone, and I’ma quote you, I’m “flawed and neurotic” and “created to address my own needs first”?

    See, I get all this wisdom from you that I want to share with people, but I don’t know how to do it without it being ME that’s trying to change THEM. Although in this case it’s just to change her into leaving me alone about this particular issue. Because seriously, she is not my shrink, and she has no particular right to tell me how to live, even if she does love me God dammit. Yes I am using this as a sounding board for my frustrations, and thanks for understanding that. I love your site and I’m glad it’s still up, and now that I finished finals (this morning Hallelujah) I’m going to be reading alllllll the recent posts I haven’t had time for yet. Joy to the world.

  10. I Hope Everyone Has A Happy New Year! I love this site.

  11. Anonymous says:

    The blog was absolutely fantastic! Lots of great information and inspiration, both of which we all need!

  12. Edward Young says:

    i enjoy attending bridal showers coz there are lots of pretty ladies and it is enjoyable too*”,

  13. Ria says:

    I’m 97% positive you had said you were “siblingless” in an earlier post…

Leave a Reply