We’ve all fantasized about the photo frame family—the stock shot of the happy, healthy, generic family that comes with the frame, and whom you know would never go on and on about their quirky digestive tracts or ask, “So, you still with that guy?” During November and December, that calm, cardigan-ed family would be your easy company.
The truth is, no one has that family (not even them). Instead, you have your own unique tangle of relatives and close friends, many of whom you love dearly. And some of whom push your buttons so hard they make you crazy—annoyed, resentful, hurt, outraged, depressed, and mad for chocolate, eggnog, television, or anything else to take the edge of being around them off.
You can’t change the people who make you crazy. (I know you’ve tried, with ill effects.) But what you can do is change how you relate to your sore-spot relatives to make your buttons push-proof.
For example, maybe it drives you nuts when your sister starts a side conversation whenever you have everyone’s attention. Maybe you want to smash a plate when your aunt holds loudly forth with her vitriolic, inconsistent political opinions. In those moments you probably can’t rewrite your relationship with your sister or rewire your aunt’s brain. You need a strategy to change how you think about them so that your stress doesn’t drag you down.
Here are three push-proof strategies to try.
Strategy #1: Make Yourself Laugh
One of our favorite ways of dealing with button-pushing relative or friend comes, of all places, from the Harry Potter books. To defend against a creature that takes on the form of a person’s greatest fear, the students must picture it in the most ridiculous situation possible. The students in the book have the benefit of a magic wand and a spell, but the power here is truly in your mind.
When the belligerent aunt starts in on politics, pay close attention to her. Become aware of her gestures, her clothes, the shape of her face, the color of her eyes. Really try to see her as is she in that moment, not how she’s been at every other holiday event or how she makes you feel.
Now picture her looking absolutely absurd. In your imagination, put a hat with a big purple bird on her head. Put her in a football helmet and shoulder pads. Imagine a chorus of scantily clad dancers behind her doing a kick line. The point here isn’t to disrespect your relative—this is only happening in your mind—but to interrupt the flood of negative thoughts and feelings this relative typically triggers in you. When she consciously or unconsciously tries to get a rise out of you, your buttons will be giggling away.
Strategy #2: Make time for a one-on-one
Sometimes it’s best to go the practical route. If you know a relative or friend pushes your buttons, talk to him or her before you’re in the heat of a bad moment. You may, in fact, be practicing the flawed art of mind reading, in that you believe that you know what someone else is thinking right now, and often you expect the very worst. It’s like you’re pushing the button for the other person.
Say you assume your sister is trying to undermine you with her side conversations. She might be, but you can’t know for sure, and the problem with an untested judgment is that when you believe it, you react to it and create tension where none need be. Make yourself a promise that before you jump to conclusions, about anything, you’ll ask the questions. Invite the conversation. Be honest about your concerns and ask for what you need, rather than assume everyone is against you.
Another practical approach is to let the predictable button-pushers slide. Do you need to insist that your father help your mother with the dishes, even though he hasn’t washed a plate in 20 years? Maybe not. Sometimes planning for what you will let go of is the most peaceful thing to do.
Strategy #3: Swap out the lens
Your goal is to shift how you perceive and react to a button-pushing person. To do that, you need to replace the negative-seeking lens through which you view this person for a positive one. Make a list of all the things you appreciate and admire about this person. (If that’s a stretch, go for two or three things.) What are his or her shining qualities? What makes you grateful for him or her? What was a time in the past when this person was loving, or kind, or brave, or funny?
You may want to give your list to your relative. Or you may want to keep it in your pocket and read it in the thick of the holiday dinner. Either way, as you create and revisit this appreciation, your brain gets a break from the constant reinforcement of negative thoughts and beliefs, both about the person and yourself. You open up room for a new relationship to her or her, even if it’s only in your mind. He or she may not be someone you want to spend any more time with, and that’s fine. Your list exists to make some peace for yourself.
And isn’t that what you really want? To have the emotional and mental capacity to enjoy some time with the kooks and heroes and ordinary folks who make up your family, whether given or chosen? If that’s not the holiday spirit, we don’t know what is.