Tuesday 17 September 2019

How to survive toxic family members this Christmas - the expert's guide

Emotional prepping is just as important as food prepping ahead of the Christmas holidays, writes Niamh Horan

BE PREPARED: ‘We all have our own family patterns and behaviours that happen every year, so they shouldn’t really come as a surprise to us’. Stock picture
BE PREPARED: ‘We all have our own family patterns and behaviours that happen every year, so they shouldn’t really come as a surprise to us’. Stock picture
Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

David Caruso is co-founder of the Emotional Intelligence Skills Group in the United States and psychologist at the Yale Centre for Emotional Intelligence.

He travels the world training people how to overcome personal and cultural barriers and to express and manage their emotions.

From workplace situations, to friendships, to romance - and even when dealing with adversaries - learning how to understand and manage your emotions leads to a happier and easier life.

So what better way to put Caruso's skills to good use than to provide the ultimate guide to surviving your family at Christmas?

With four weeks to go, here is his guide for getting through the most emotionally fraught time of year with your dignity and sanity intact.

Don't always go with your gut feeling before speaking

"I can't stress this enough. Because that gut feeling can come from being in a crummy mood or simply because you're hungry, you ate too much, drank too much or got too little sleep."

Before you respond, carry out an emotional 'what if?' analysis

"Just reflect and ask yourself the key questions: how much of it is me - that I am so bothered by this? How would someone else feel if they were in my shoes? Would they be as outraged as I am? And if I do respond, what do I want to get out of this?

"People in business call it doing 'due diligence'. Before you open your mouth and say something, remember you can't unsay it. So take a moment to look into the future: 'If I say the following words, in this tone, how could that other person react? And is that what I want to happen?'"

The importance of the intervening moment

"This is the few seconds between thinking and saying. It's only a few seconds but it could save you a lot of unhappiness down the line.

"Tell yourself: 'I would love to say that but is that the person I want to be?' You know, it can seem so satisfying to be blunt and direct and to say everything that you are feeling - initially.

"But unfortunately you also have to think: 'do I want to be that person?' Given a few moments most of us would say: 'I really wanted to tell her what I thought of her, but do you know what? No, I don't want to be that person today.'"

Being authentic is not always a great idea

"This new idea of being 'authentic' all the time is a bad idea. Think about a world in which every thought you had, you voiced, without any filter and without considering the impact it has on other people. It would be a terrible world filled with anger, disappointment and confusion. I would like a world with 'smart authenticity':

a) consider what the other person hears;

b) consider your goals;

c) make sure you are not just being a jerk in the moment.

First, master some of the techniques below, and then speak out and speak up - in an emotionally intelligent way.

Set your expectations

"It's going to be messy - it's not going to be perfect - so don't expect perfection. There are always the same behaviour patterns in families.

"Uncle Joe gets drunk and tells off-colour jokes at the dinner table; your sister always arrives two hours' late for dinner; your cousin never helps with the washing up; your brother always has a go at you because he thinks that dad loved you more.

"We all have our own family patterns and behaviours that happen every year, so shame on us if these typical squabbles, issues, stresses or disappointments are a surprise to us each year.

"We put so much effort into preparing food and presents around the holiday season, we need to do the same with our emotions. We need to think about these situations in advance and set our expectations accordingly. And then prepare."

Prepare in advance

"Modify events to prevent expected problems. For example, think about your seating arrangements at the table and sit people beside those they get on with.

"Also, as the day wears on and the drink is flowing, people become bored - it's past the best of the day - and this is when you need to modify your mood ahead of time.

"Do an 'emotional weather analysis': we know we are tired, we are getting cranky, people didn't get enough sleep, they're a little tipsy, so be prepared for it. Maybe plan to go out for a walk at that time and take in some fresh air.

"This is called a 'physiological technique'."

Other physiological techniques

"If someone says or does something to annoy you, look down for a second and then look up. This can be enough to change your physiology and bring your anger down a couple of pegs. Even the simple act of smiling has the same effect."

Don't personalise it

"Realise 'this is not about me, that is their character and they are not going to change'. It could just be down to a simple lack of awareness. They don't realise that in being late, you are interpreting it as a personal slight or insult, when, for example, they are just terrible at planning.

"And yes they are not very thoughtful but they didn't intentionally sit there staying up late at night thinking, 'Oh how can we make your life miserable? Oh I know! He really is a stickler for time, so I am going to be late'."

Use positive self-talk

"Tell yourself: 'I am not going to feel badly about this. It happens every time but I am not going to be a contributor to the discord. I am not going to stir it up'."

Carry out a cognitive reappraisal

"This means reinterpreting the meaning of the emotional stimulus. Try to think of the other reasons why people are acting the way they are. When I do training talks I ask people to walk me through a day in their life.

"Think about the emotional rollercoaster we all have to deal with day to day. There is a lot of stress and strain and we can all feel overwhelmed at times, so if that is my daily experience and I am having a tough time, remember that so is every single person in my family, or the people I meet in the shops.

"In other words, give people a break. Although they shouted or said something hurtful, maybe they're just having a really hard time right now.

"And during the holidays that can be even more pronounced because people have such huge expectations - and it's never going to be perfect. Realise that your disappointments are experienced by everybody."

The more important a conversation is, the more you need to practise it

"So, what if you need to have it out with someone? We don't hear our own 'moan tone' so if you're planning to say something really important it helps to bounce it off a level-headed unbiased family or friend. Just ask: 'Hey, if I said X to my brother or cousin, how would it come across?'

"Great actors have great scripts and great directors, and they rehearse a lot to let it sound natural, so the more important this conversation or comment is, the better the script preparation and the more rehearsal you should engage in.

"This also means communicating in a way that you are heard and that stands a decent chance of impacting the people around you, in a constructive way."

Happiness depends on the person

"We differentiate between two kinds of empathy: emotional empathy is, 'I feel what you're feeling', while cognitive empathy is 'I understand what you're feeling'.

"The first can be really exhausting because you are taking on the feelings of others, but the second one is a little bit easier and a little more intellectual and it may be helpful around the holidays.

"It is also helpful when it comes to gifts and planning. Someone who is a good host or a good 'gift-giver' has a lot of cognitive empathy.

"They know 'my idea of happiness is different to yours'. So when you are planning the day ask yourself, am I doing it this way because this fits in with my idea of happiness, or do other people have different needs and wants?

"Maybe they prefer a more relaxed day and are not too keen on your big, formal dinner.

"Giving gifts is the same: give the gift the person would like to receive as opposed to what you want to give. Ask yourself: 'who am I doing this for?'"

How to connect with your loved ones

"Americans are famous for the 'hey how 'ya doin?' and the answer is always the phoney 'great!'. When you really want to ask someone how they have been, be aware of your tone. Ask sincerely and in a more intimate tone rather than high-pitched and upbeat. The setting is also important - rather than asking while passing in the hallway, pull up a chair with them, maybe offer to pour them a beer by the fire. And be time specific - ask how has your week or year been, or how have you been since we last spoke?

"You can also personalise the question and ask about a specific event that has been going on in their lives. When you share your own personal experiences, other people will be more inclined to open up, too.

"So don't be afraid to be a bit vulnerable."

Aim for connection, not happiness

"Don't look for constant happiness - it can be superficial and you're not going to get it. Instead look for shared connections and an understanding of one another. What are their hopes, dreams, fears, loves, losses?

That's what would be really fulfilling. Not forced joviality - but real connection and belonging.

And perhaps, a bit more peace on Earth".

Sunday Independent

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