"Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family... in another city," wrote George Burns. Having lived in another country from my large, loving, caring and close-knit family for much of the last 20 years, I can't subscribe to Burns' cynicism. But there's no doubt that those we're related tend to cause disproportionately more emotional burn than those we aren't.
If you've ever felt glad to get to the the "farewell" part of a family gathering, always remember -- your relatives are just that. People you are related to. You may love them, but you might not always like them, and expecting that you should always get along like the Waltons will set you up for heartache.
While there's no easy secret recipe to handling difficult rel's (besides never seeing them), I've developed a few strategies over the years that have helped carry me through family gatherings without losing my "merry."
1. Accept "Relative Reality"
Accept your "relative reality" and start strategizing -- before Santa shows up - how you can avoid sensitive 'hot button' issues and steer the focus toward the things that keep the peace and maximise the fun for all. If you're family gatherings have a track record of imploding, consider creating an exit strategy should you reach the about-to-lose-it-point.
2. Decide To Act Big... No Matter What
As I wrote in my latest book Brave, emotions are contagious so be careful not to get sucked into others negativity. That's just what they'd love. The more cynical or petty they may be, the bigger you need to be. You can't do anything to change what others say or do; you can only change what you do.
3. Pause Before Speaking
If everyone took just five seconds to think about the impact their words could have before uttering them, we'd probably live in a more peaceful world. In the pregnant pause between thinking and speaking, your neurons make the essential leap from the "monkey brain" to the "thinking" part of your brain (the prefrontal cortex.)
Before the pause you may be on track to say: "You've always been an idiot. Clearly nothing's changed." (Emotional reaction). After the pause you can smile graciously and say, "That's fascinating but you'll have to excuse me. I need to check on the (ham, kids, game... fill-in-the blank)." (Smart response)
4. Tell yourself: "It's Not About Me." Repeat as necessary
Genuinely happy people have no need to pull others down or stir up trouble. So if your sibling has a dig at you, it's not about you, it's about them and their unresolved baggage. Hurt people hurt people. So when someone says something intended to hurt you, it's because they want you to feel pain like they do. Don't take it personally, because it's not about you and never has been. Try doing a little visualisation -- picture yourself inside a bubble made of psychological Teflon, where snarky remarks bounce right off you.
5. Beware the Green Monster
Religion and politics. We've long known that religion and politics are two topics that can trigger a tension at any dinner table. However there may be others you need to steer away from. Like parenting philosophies, family vacations and careers. Sure, you may be happy to share your plans for an Club Med vacation at Spring Break but if you're sister is living in a trailer park she may not want to hear about it. Rather show your interest with more open-ended questions, like "What are you up to these days?" and keep your judgements to yourself. Be mindful of the green monster and don't you be the one to stir up trouble and raise the tension in the room.
6. Take a Chill Pill
Too many people sweat the small stuff - whether it be getting the 'stuffing' just right or having the perfect table setting. Focus on what matters most and lower your bar on everything else. Minimizing your own stress levels will help you desensitize those buttons that family seem to trigger so easily. In the big scheme of life, does it really matter if you serve lunch two hours late? If you sit further up the "control freak" end of the spectrum, and love everything to be Martha-Stewart-perfect, try to ease up on yourself and everyone else so you can enjoy the day, whatever happens. Or as my kids would say, "Take a chill pill."
7. Remember the "Reason for the Season"
As a mother of four and big sister of seven, I believe that nothing in life is as rich as spending quality time with people you love. So focus your attention on the gift of family with all their dynamics, personalities and imperfections. And yes, cliché as it is, never forget the "reason for the season" and that you have a family that loves you (and maybe even likes you too!) There are millions of people who'd love nothing more than to be surrounded by family during at this festive time of year.
On that note, I wish you a Happy Holidays, Joyous Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, Festive Kwanza or whatever tradition dominates your life at this festive time of year.
And if you're looking for a little reading to help you be braver with your family, and in the year to come, please check out my three best selling books or sign up for my Live Bravely newsletter here.