How to Stick Together when 2020's Falling Apart
Updated: Nov 3
by Mitch Blatt
Hey everyone! There are a lot of great holidays in a year. Whether they revolve around eating food, hanging stockings and giving presents, or candles that miraculously burned for eight nights, they all have one thing in common: spending time with family. Whatever we like about these holiday gatherings, we all have that one relative we disagree with about things like politics or religion. There may also be the relative who’s (in someone’s opinion) overly-concerned with how much others are eating, in-laws that someone finds annoying, and/or the football fan(atic)s who get way too loud when booing or cheering.
Given all the divisive things that have happened in 2020, it makes a bit of sense to wonder if trying to come together is really worth it. Do you feel obligated to tolerate them because “they’re family?” If you don’t think your relative can or will see your side of a hot-button issue, why not just cut your losses?
I decided to get advice from a mental health professional. Specifically, a trauma specialist who deals with the stage of life that’s stereotypically most prone to family drama: being a teenager. Mental health therapist & trauma specialist Kristan Chow has some useful tips for avoiding holiday tensions this year and improving your relationships.
There are times when “agree to disagree” doesn’t work, when someone at the gathering just wants to push your buttons and antagonize you. “The more people that are there,” says Chow, “the more likely you’re gonna have an antagonizer, someone who’s gonna be going after you. One of the things that I say is to practice in your mirror what you’re gonna say.” You could say something as simple as “I respectfully disagree. Would you mind telling me about this other thing?” “Seeing the human in them” is important.
It’s important to practice how to respond to your antagonist, she says, because “If we don’t practice setting our boundaries, when we go implement them, we’re building a
If you absolutely have to, you can disengage from an unwanted conversation topic. There was one family gathering where Chow’s family was talking about the police and Black Lives Matter (her husband is asian and a cop). Chow told them, “I will not talk about this. If you keep talking, I’m just not going to respond,” which was difficult for her to do even though she’s
the “black sheep” in her family—a Liberal in an interracial marriage in a family of Conservative Christians—and would be even harder for the “peacemaker” or “golden child” who prefers compromise to putting their foot down. She doesn’t normally advocate being on your
phone when you’re with family, but she felt like she didn’t have much of a choice. She took her phone out and scrolled through Pinterest—not actively paying attention to the app, but using it as a break to practice breathing and ground herself. Her family realized that she wasn’t going to engage in that conversation, and changed the topic. She re-engaged and showed that she didn’t hate them, just talking about that topic during what should’ve been a good time with family.
She set her boundaries, knew what her limits were and didn’t let her family cross them. By doing so, she didn’t feel the shame and guilt of letting herself be called out as the “black sheep.” She didn’t let the drama put a dent in her self-love.
Chow advocates practicing mindfulness, saying that it’s a good idea to prepare a mental list of conversation topics in advance, know how to center yourself, and know who to turn to for support in the middle of stress and drama. “The more people we can have supporting us and on our side will be the best we can do to really help us in
And the top tip: Whoever you’re spending the holidays with, make sure that you tend to your relationships beforehand, so that negative feelings don’t build up and boil over during stressful holiday preparations. Be sure to take deep breaths, plan ahead to diffuse tension, and have a friend who can support you if you need it.
The more people you have in your support network, the better you can cope with stressful situations. There are tons of those going on right now, from the wildfires to the election to the lockdowns. Cutting them out of your life shrinks the potential size of your support network, in addition to making things incredibly awkward if you can’t avoid being in the same room with them.
The next time you’re dealing with family drama, please try and keep these tips in mind, or have a supportive friend or family member who can remind you of them. Limiting tensions will make family gatherings much more enjoyable for everyone involved.