By: Sara Coughlin
The weather is crappy, you're stuck indoors with your extended family, and there's most likely plenty of booze around. If there ever were a setting more finely tuned for familial blowups, it has yet to be discovered.
As tempting as it may be to get into a politically tinged screaming match with your aunt, it's probably better in the long term if you resist that urge — or at least know how to handle those emotions when they bubble to the surface.
Rather than gritting your teeth through yet another frustrating family dinner, you can arrive this year with a few chill-out tricks up your sleeve. We spoke with Rachel McDavid, LMFT, a marriage and family therapist based in New York City, about how you can actually process and express your anger healthily.
Read on for our step-by-step guide to dealing with your anger, from the moment you feel your jaw clench up to when you're ready to cool off.
Take a break.
When you notice tensions rising, it’s time to excuse yourself. “Take a walk, go to another room, or do something to help you refocus and calm down,” McDavid says. Simply removing yourself from the situation, even if it means leaving the dinner table, can be extremely helpful. Plus, you can’t respond in a way that escalates the conflict if you aren’t in the room.
Once you've found a place where you can be alone, McDavid recommends trying a calming breathing exercise to help you cool off: Inhale through your nose for five seconds, hold your breath for two seconds, exhale slowly out of your mouth for eight to 10 seconds, then repeat. This exercise "will both calm down your nervous system and take you out of your thinking mind, because you need to count," she says, adding that the last thing you want to do is linger on your anger.
Try on a new point of view.
Once you're more relaxed, you might be able to think more clearly about your conflict. McDavid offers a few questions to ask yourself: "Can you look at the situation a little more objectively? What are you needing — to be heard or understood? What might the other person be needing — could they possibly be needing something similar?"
Focusing on each other's needs, and not how you may have conveyed them in the heat of the moment, can remove any lingering emotions from the situation. This is the first step toward understanding the person who upset you.
Make a plan to talk — or not.
McDavid says whether you talk things out or not depends on the situation: "Sometimes we tell others things to assuage our guilt, not thinking about the impact to them." If you're on the fence about approaching your relative after a blowup, think about what the end result of your conversation will be. "Consider if telling would be beneficial," McDavid says. "Would it make you feel more connected, or would it be disconnecting?"
Take timing into account.
Maybe your feelings will be better expressed in a one-on-one setting, far away from the family table. Or, consider writing them a note that allows you to speak your piece, and pencil in a peace-making coffee meet up another time.
If you deem it necessary to talk things out ASAP, be prepared to take responsibility for what you said. "Be accountable," McDavid says. "Let them know what was going on for you at the time you got angry and explain how you would like to start again." She also says to use "I" statements to avoid sounding too accusatory, and to speak only from your own experience — don't try to explain away how the other person was feeling at the time.
If the dinner ends and you still feel wound up, try that breathing exercise again, and, if nothing else, remind yourself that the visit won't last forever.
More From Refinery29: