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How to Get Through Tough Family Gatherings

Even if you love every member of your family dearly, holiday gatherings are often complicated affairs, and the holidays are a difficult, stressful time for many people.

Barry Michels and Phil Stutz, goop’s trusted advisors and the psychotherapists behind the book, The Tools, have a series of empowering, results-oriented techniques designed to help you tackle essentially any trial life throws your way. These tools—which we covered to some degree in previous goop pieces—are especially useful for people heading into the holidays, where family challenges, difficult relationships, or even just tricky dynamics, may await. Whether you full-on dread sitting around the table with your family, or are just a little worried about seeing the one relative who always gives you a hard time, Michel’s guide to diffusing rough family dynamics, maintaining your center through all of it, and finding ways to give thanks for the blessings you do have (family or not), is immensely helpful and therapeutic.

A Q&A with Barry Michels

Q

What makes going home for the holidays so difficult for many people?

A

You get to choose your friends, but not your family. When you choose friends, you often pick people who are supportive, interesting, and help you grow. But with your family, you don’t have a choice, so you may find yourself stuck with people you would never befriend. You feel a duty to see them—especially around the holidays or other special events—even when you’d prefer not to.

Families can be difficult for another reason. There are almost always unresolved injuries, rivalries, and conflicts from the past: Your older brother used to beat you up, your mother couldn’t tolerate your sexuality, your parents wanted you to take sides in their conflict, etc. You may be a different person than when you left home, but if your family is stuck in the past, or if they don’t see you often, they may still think of you as the person they knew many years ago—and treat you accordingly.

All of this can make family gatherings tense, unpleasant, and something people don’t look forward to.

Q

Is it obligatory to attend family gatherings?

A

If an environment is truly toxic—violent, threatening, or demeaning—then you should say no. You should also say no if you’re extremely worn down and stressed out, and feel you won’t be able to regulate your own mood or behavior.

Absent those conditions, however, I usually recommend people go to family gatherings—not because it’s going to be fun, but because it’s an amazing opportunity to grow emotionally.

Q

How can someone adopt that growth mindset when it is so hard?

A

You must first bring your expectations in line with reality. Most of us go into the holidays with high hopes. The mythology around family gatherings says we should all be happy and have a good time—even if previous years indicate that is not likely to happen.

Be realistic, whatever the case may be: Expect Uncle Joe to get drunk and act out; expect your mom to treat you like a child; expect your sister-in-law to set no limits with her spoiled kid. Being realistic enables you to work on yourself by holding yourself to a standard of emotional maturity you may have never before achieved in their midst.

To say it another way: Don’t measure the success of a family gathering by how pleasant or unpleasant it was. Use a different metric: the number of times you used tools to prevent yourself from regressing. Hopefully there will be moments of fun, but regardless of what happens, you can consider it a success if you managed to use the tools (see below for some especially valuable ones), maintain your autonomy, and not get pulled into old, negative family dynamics.

Think of the family dysfunction as a swamp; certain members are going to try to drag you into it. (Most of the time this isn’t intentional, it’s just a habit.) Your goal is to expect this and use tools to keep yourself out of the swamp. It’s tough, because you’ve probably failed a million times before. But the good news is nobody can force you in there; it’s always in your power to stay out of it, and the rewards for staying out are great.

Your family of origin exerts a powerful pull, so if you can restrain yourself and change your habits with them, you’ll be able to do it anywhere, anytime, with anyone. It gives you an enormous sense of freedom. (By the way, you’ll be doing your family a big favor by accomplishing this. What I see all the time, as a therapist, is that when one member of a family holds themselves to a higher standard, other family members gradually start to rise to that standard.)

Q

How do we restrain ourselves during a busy gathering?

A

I always recommend excusing yourself—go to the bathroom or go out to your car. Do this immediately, as soon as you feel yourself sinking, because the forces pulling you into the swamp are powerful and they gain momentum quickly. Once you’ve removed yourself, use the tools as many times as you need. You want to do anything you can to keep yourself from joining the family in their dysfunction. (Many of my patients have used tools so many times that they can use them in front of other people, even while they’re having a conversation. But if you’re new to the tools, or don’t feel adept at them, definitely excuse yourself.)

If you come out of the bathroom or back from your walk and still feel like you’re losing it, then say goodbye. It’s okay. Remember the new metric: If you used your tools, that’s a success, whether you left early or stayed the whole time.

Q

Which tools are most helpful, and how can we use them?

A

It depends on what issue your family triggers in you. Almost every family requires Active Love—designed to release you from anger and grudges—because there are almost always members who have “wronged” you, hurt your feelings, or whose values are antithetical to your own.

Almost all families also trigger Shadow issues. The Shadow is a term used by Carl Jung to refer to the part of you that receives the brunt of your criticism and negativity. It’s like an alter ego. Typically, the fear, hurt, and anger we feel toward our families mirrors what our Shadow feels toward us. The tool, Inner Authority, can help you deal with those negative feelings, and find your confidence.

The Grateful Flow tool combats anxiety and negative thinking by harnessing the grounding force of gratitude—which never hurts. The tool gives you the proper perspective, reminding you that there is an abundance of goodness in your life and that you don’t want whatever is happening right now to put you into a negative state.

Q

What if we just have one particularly toxic relative—is there a tool you recommend?

A

What often happens in families is the dysfunction gets expressed by one person. Without intending it, the whole family gets organized around that person, accommodating them, navigating around them, trying to get them to change. All that time and energy gives that person power, so he or she ends up taking up a lot of space in your head. There’s a tool that is designed to take back this power and place it inside yourself: Projection Dissolving. I learned it from my co-author, Phil Stutz, over thirty years ago—it was my go-to tool when I was dealing with this issue.

Use the Projection Dissolving tool whenever you notice yourself thinking too much about the difficult person, whether it’s before, during, or after the family gathering:

  1. Close your eyes and see that person as larger than life—gigantic and shimmering with power, like an actor in a spotlight. Experience yourself as a small, scared child trying to placate, avoid, or (in some cases) challenge them.

  2. Imagine there’s something in your heart that has projected all this energy onto them, like a movie projector showing an image on a screen. Suck all of the energy back into your heart. This should feel physical, as if you’re sucking something back inside yourself. The person will deflate back to normal size, like a balloon losing all its air. Now he/she is just a normal human being. All of the energy you were projecting outward is now inside you. You feel expanded inside. From this place, the other person is no longer a threat.

  3. Look at the now-deflated image of the other person and apologize (to the image, not the actual person). Most people are surprised at this step. After all, the other person is the offender, so why apologize to them? You apologize because the dynamic isn’t good for either one of you. It’s not good for you to give them that much power because it leaves you feeling weak, and it’s not good for them to have that much power over you—it brings out the worst in them.

Q

What advice do you give to patients who don’t have families to spend the holidays with, and might be feeling incredibly lonely?

A

I talk about this every year with people who are alone on the holidays. It’s understandable they feel left out. It seems like the whole world is having a wonderful celebration and they didn’t get invited to the party. What I tell people without families is the truth: A lot of people are unhappy around the holidays. People without families wish they could be with relatives. But people with families wish they could be by themselves! The key to having a good holiday is to not bemoan your condition, it’s to cultivate a sense of gratitude for whatever blessings you do have in your life. That’s what the holidays are for—to give thanks.

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