Most of us have been there: You’re sitting down to enjoy a nice dinner, and uncle Tom (or aunt Linda) starts ranting. It doesn’t matter whether it’s about politics, your child’s education, or the way your new hairdo looks.
The important thing is that you feel put upon – regardless of whether they bring up politics or attack you in some way. And even though it feels extremely triggering to have to listen to them – this is also what puts you in the driver’s seat: It’s not about them – it’s about you staying in control of your own reactions.
So before you start rolling your eyes or think about fighting back, take a moment and look inside.
1. Take a sip of water, take a breath and ask yourself: Why am I so bothered by their BS?
Does their opinion really matter to you? Do you see their comments as the ultimate truth rather than a projection of their anxieties?
Most of the time, criticism is nothing but a hidden form of blaming someone else for one’s own insecurities. The definition of blame is the need to discharge pain or discomfort onto someone else. If uncle Tom asks about why you don’t have a girlfriend, it probably means that he is unhappy with his own relationships. If aunt Cathy criticizes your dress, she most likely isn’t crazy about her own appearance.
Holiday conversations are filled with projections. And projections are nothing but pointing the finger at someone else, so they don’t have to look at their own insecurities. Don’t get roped into their drama, and remind yourself that there’s nothing wrong with you.
2. Remember your allies and take control
If you anticipate uncomfortable conversations think about a couple of topics you want to discuss. Ponder who at the table might feel the same way you do. Group dynamics are all about alliances. Maybe your dad is just as tired of his brother’s rants as you are.
Intervene and distract at the first sign of annoyance. Don’t let it get out of hand. Get up from your seat to draw attention to you. Walk over to you father and show him a picture of your toddler’s Halloween dress, or a funny YouTube video. Involve your allies in a conversation about what they used to do as kids at Halloween. Group conversations flow with what people really want to talk about. And that’s usually not some crazy relative, but events and people who are close to their heart.
If you have the nerve (and you might not) to take aunt Cathy on, try to validate her experience. Notorious critics tend to soften as soon as they are shown compassion, especially if what they are used to is opposition.
If you’re involved in an ongoing toxic battle about politics, try a general statement like “it really is a shame what’s going on there” and don’t engage further. If you can’t hear the constant complaints about (fill in the blank) anymore, say “this really seems to get to you” and quickly change the topic.
When you change your perspective, from seeing an annoying person to looking at a human being who has gone through pain and disappointment everything opens. Your uncle may be bitter at times, but he has also been through a lot and he did the best he could. Your aunt may resort to criticism, but she has probably had her fair share of just that in her own life, and tried to rise above her own family legacy.
Nobody is perfect, but we can acknowledge that people want to grow and evolve. Even a Thanksgiving grinch.
Gerti Schoen is a writer and psychotherapist. In her spare time she enjoys learning, being in nature and around animals.