It seems to arrive earlier every year: the seasonal songs, the store-front decorations, and, of course, the overwhelming anxiety over the prospect of dealing with your family during the holidays. Whether it’s just for the day, or—horrors—even longer, I’m going to attempt to give you some tips on how you can make it through the tempest this year.
“Now, Jaime,” you might ask, “are you really the best person to do this, considering you once got in a face-to-face screaming match with your uncle, which resulted in not going to his house for eight years?” Touché, dear reader. But I have learned from my mistakes, and it is my fervent hope that I can assay some knowledge as to how you might avoid making them yourself.
Don’t Take the Bait
Whether it is your uncle of an abhorrent political persuasion or your over-critical mother-in-law, it can seem like your holiday tormentor just can’t get through the day without pushing your buttons. Some of them really want a fight or to watch you squirm. They’re kind of horrible. So, I implore you, just for the day, to deactivate your buttons. Try to look at these people like the sad folks they are and ignore them. Breathe. Today is your big acting debut, and you’re acting like you don’t give a good gosh darn what they say. Smile, even. If it’s really bad, you can respond with a calm, “what an interesting thing to say.” This turns the attacker off of you and forces introspection if they are capable of such a thing.
Avoid the Elephant
Similarly, just don’t even go there. I know it is so hard for us social justice warriors to not espouse our views when confronted with closed-mindedness or bigotry, but you’re not going to change anyone’s mind while you’re passing them the peas. If someone says something that raises your blood pressure, you can say, “let’s talk about something else.” Have an innocuous topic front-loaded, like, “Did you hear Taylor Swift’s concert sales broke Ticketmaster?” You can probably come up with something better. In fact, you’ll have to if your relative is the CEO of Ticketmaster.
Super Calm Fact-Sharing
If there is no avoiding a maelstrom of gross concepts being bandied around the dinner table, you can try to combat the ignorance with some calmly delivered, helpful facts. For example, if your family is engaging in anti-trans talk (currently a favorite topic of my stepmother, apparently), you can say that there’s proof of trans folks since the beginning of recorded history, and that Indigenous cultures called them “two-spirit.” This must be delivered like you just learned it yourself, with no hint of judgment or condescension.
NOTE: This suggestion is only for emergencies and requires the detached Zen mindset of the Dalai Lama. Do not attempt this if you’re feeling particularly piqued.
Find an Ally
At my family functions, controversial topics never arise anymore, masters of repression as we are. But, at the kids’ table (we’re all over 30, mind you), we talk about our shared politics and the generational trauma that the folks in the dining room have bestowed upon us. My point is there’s got to be someone in the room who thinks the way you do, and, dear reader, you must cling to them like a vine. You can share looks throughout and trash talk with them after you leave. If you truly have nowhere to turn, see if there’s a friend with no holiday plans that you can bring along. You shouldn’t have to do this alone.
If you are overwhelmed, there is nothing wrong with giving yourself a few minutes to step away, breathe some more, and center yourself. I miss smoking because it used to give me an opportunity to do this with regularity. I am NOT recommending smoking, but hiding in the bathroom for an equal amount of time can be a sanity-saver.
The Above, But Further
Can’t stand being around your family? Simply pretend they don’t exist! That’s pretty much what I do with the above-mentioned stepmom’s side, beyond brief birthday check-ins. Seriously, if your family is truly that toxic, there’s no saying you have to hang out with them. Your sanity is more important than Aunt Judy’s corn casserole. Sure, you may get some blowback, but you’ll have to decide which is worse. If you can, be honest about why you’re not attending, and maybe your folks will be better behaved should you try again next year. I know it can feel bad to turn your back on kin, but, in some cases, it is the only option.
I hope you’ve found this to be a playable game plan. I’m no expert, but I have gone into a holiday house with Fox News on TV and a (different!) uncle being racist. I wrote it into a stand-up routine, which I also recommend. Very cathartic. But seriously, you’re strong and smart enough to navigate these coming days, and I believe in you. So get out there, put on your armor and enter the holiday fray!