Happy Thanksgiving! It’s a time to give thanks for all of the wonderful things in our lives. Or, is it just another stressful time of forced family fun?
If you are like me, it’s a little bit of both. I’m thankful for my family, but I also know that family is one of the leading causes of stress during the holiday season.
Family can be full of love, but it can also be a breeding ground for hostility. For example, throughout the Bible many brothers and sisters, parents and children all succumb to intense family conflict and rivalry that tear their lives apart. Family life today isn’t much different. Our most severe conflicts tend to be with people who are closest to us – especially those with whom we share the same blood and DNA.
Take my family, for example. There is one person who routinely causes turmoil. I’m sure you know the type – at every family function she says or does something that digs under my skin. My brothers and my sister feel that dig, too. She finds veiled ways to insult my mother, my siblings, our jobs, my house, the food we prepare, and she routinely finds ways to gossip about her friends.
Without trying to scapegoat her, I basically think she’s the devil. (Did I just scapegoat her? I think I did … more about that later …)
I used to get really mad whenever she would say those things. My stomach would turn in knots as my chest burned with anger. When she would leave our house, I’d say to my wife, “Did you hear what she said about my brother?!? I can’t believe she said that!”
Maybe you can identify with my situation. It’s hard to know how to survive a Thanksgiving meal with such a person. But I think we can do more than survive. In fact, I think we can thrive. Using family systems theory and mimetic theory, I’d like to offer these seven ways that have empowered me to flourish during moments of forced family fun:
- All it takes is for one person to change. According to family systems theory, all that’s needed to modify a family dynamic is for one person to change. For better or worse, “The action of one member affects all others.” Now, there is no way that I can change this person in my life. I don’t have that kind of control. The only control I have in my family system is the ability to change my actions and emotions. And in doing that, I start changing the whole system. The next six ways are based on this first principle, but here’s a quick example: I’m no longer surprised when she says something that insults me, my wife, or my siblings. In fact, I’m pretty sure that it’s coming. And when I expect it to come, I can choose to respond in a different way so that it doesn’t sting nearly as much. (Of course, we can anticipate in a way that back fires. See number 2.)
- Change the game. Mimetic theory claims that we are highly social creatures who are formed in the image of an “other.” We “mimic” the emotions and actions of those around us. There are slight differences, but family systems theory refers to this relational dynamic as enmeshment. For example, whenever this person in my family would say something mean, I became enmeshed with her as I mimicked her hostility. In fact, I began to think of hostility as a competition. Anticipating her insults (see number 1), I tried to beat her at her own game. But it back fired. I lost every time. After all, she has been playing the game for decades. Playing her game wasn’t working, so I began to to change the game. Instead of getting mad or retaliating, I began to laugh it off by using playful banter. Changing the game from hostility to humor with playful banter is a good way to diffuse stressful family situations.
- Shake it off and create boundaries. Haters gonna hate, so one of the best things we can do is make like Taylor Swift and shake it off. Someone once told me to take this person with a grain of salt, but I don’t want that salt. It’s gone bad. So instead of taking it, I just shake that salt right off. But depending on how severe the situation is, you may need to shake this person right out of your life by setting clear boundaries. And that’s okay. Constructing those boundaries may be the most important task you fulfill in caring for yourself and your family.
- Confront them. Be very careful with this one. The goal here is to be gentle, yet firm. I did this many years ago with this person. She just said something really mean about one of my brothers. I confronted her by simply saying, “I think it would be good if we all spoke respectfully about one another.” She ran away complaining that I’ve never accepted her into our family. The conversation didn’t come to a conclusion, but there was a shift in the relationship because there was a shift in me. If nothing else, I knew that I could be gentle yet firm as I stood up to her animosity.
- Let them win. This is the hardest thing for my ego to do, but it’s also the best way to disarm a situation of hostility and conflict. My desire for justice wants to fight back, but from personal experience, that just makes things worse. Defining this relationship by “winning” and “losing” only causes more frustration. So, let them win. Find ways to agree with them. You will probably be surprised by the way that this radically changes the dynamic. But know that inside, you might feel a little death to your ego. And that’s okay. Jesus calls us to die to ourselves – our ego, our need to be right – so that we can resurrect into a new creation where winning doesn’t matter. What matters is to be more loving and compassionate and joyful than ever before.
- Know that everyone has a past. I don’t know much about this person’s history, but I do know that her family of origin was highly dysfunctional. Her parents were stern towards her and rarely showed her love. She was formed mimetically in that hostile environment. I know that she has deep wounds. And because she was never taught how to manage those wounds in a more positive way, she wounds others. That’s not an excuse for her behavior, but it does help me understand her actions. Knowing her past allows me to hold her in a different light.
- Don’t scapegoat. Instead, love your enemies. We can thank Jesus for this one … But here’s the thing – in my experience hostility against this person hasn’t change her. Unfortunately, it does change me as it only adds to my reservoir of bitterness and hostility. To make matters worse, my family and I can easily get caught in the trap of uniting against her. Family Systems Theory calls that triangulating, whereas mimetic theory calls it scapegoating, but it amounts to the same relational dynamic of uniting in hostility against another member of the family. The violence of triangulating and scapegoating brings everyone down to the same level. The only alternative, as Jesus knew, is to love. Of course, love might not change others, but it does change us. When we show love to our enemies, it makes us more loving and more compassionate people. And that, more than anything, is what the world needs.
Those are the seven ways that I’ve learned to thrive with a difficult person during family events. I’d love to know if you have any more suggestions!
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