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Family holiday

Updated November 25th 2019

“Are there traps you fall into every holiday season while forgetting they only cause you suffering?”

Think back to the last time you did any of the following and how those plans really turned out for you…

  • Bringing up an issue you had with your spouse.
  • Opening a second or third bottle of wine over dinner.
  • A road trip vacation with your children.
  • Bringing your extended family together for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner.

I want to share an exercise to help you avoid some common holiday season pitfalls. But first, to understand why this exercise is necessary, let’s start with a little about what I call our ‘two brains’…

Did you know there are very few connections between your ’emotional brain’ and ‘rational brain’?

These two areas tend to be active at different times (when one ‘switches on’ the other will tend to ‘switch off’) and each sees the world very differently. One symptom of this is that humans are very bad at predicting how things we plan are likely to make us feel.

To help explain this I like to talk about our 2 brains as the hare and the tortoise:

Your Hare Brain: (amygdala) is very fast and small (compared to our tortoise brain) and tends to be more intuitive. It knows more about us than our Tortoise brain does and is lightening fast at sensing opportunity and danger.

In most other ways, however, our hare brain can be very stupid.

It can cause us to be overly sensitive and reactive and say things we may regret later.

Our hare brain is also a terrible planner and  problem solver.

Your Tortoise Brain: (pre frontal upper cortex) is more socially skilled and logical (intelligent) and more prone to be cautious and not over react. Your tortoise brain is, however, terrible at knowing how things are likely to make us feel and so while being a good problem solver it is also not a good long term planner. 

This leaves us in a difficult situation in holiday season with both brains being bad at planning. 

Good planning only happens when we get both of these brains working together!

Think back to Thanksgiving and Christmas get togethers in the past…

  • Do you have relatives who have got the better of you when they make comments you feel are belittling?
  • Have you disagreed on politics or religious beliefs that have end in arguments or fights?
  • Have you found that members of your family put you down and make out that they are more important than you are?
  • Have family members acted up in ways that have made the festive season a bad experience for everyone?  

The mistake we often make is thinking our own emotional reaction to these situations in the past was the whole problem (“I shouldn’t have got angry and said that”) while pretending in future we won’t ever react that way again.

The hare is always much faster than the tortoise, however, and so no matter what good intentions you have about ‘next time’, unless you start planning right now, the same thing will happen again.

Vowing that next time you will not over react, simply won’t work. The rabbit will always be faster than the tortoise!

Pre planning is the only solution…

This year make sure you take time out to plan ahead and practice better responses to have ready for situations you can already anticipate.

There is no more important time for this than at Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Rather than letting our hare brain loose in the heat of the moment, we need to remember (and learn more) about what triggers these strong feelings and think through (when we are clam) how we will deal with this situation next time.  Calmly considering the trigger our emotional brain alerted us to is how we get our two brains working together.

Exercise 1 – Think about the problems you have encountered at Thanksgiving and Christmas in the past (that made you feel emotional) and may be likely to crop up again this year:

  • Your in-laws ignoring your children’s dietary requirements and putting them down as you being crazy or over protective?
  • Family members that cut you off in conversation and ignore you?
  • Relatives who argue politics?
  • A spouse who says bad things about you to their parents behind your back?
  • Children who openly defy you or express disrespect?
  • Food or drink that upsets your equilibrium?
  • People who make plans that involve you without consulting you?

Pre planning is the only way you are going to have a hope of dealing with these situations when they arise.

Pre prepared scripts can be one of the best strategies to deal with these type of situations and each situation may need some brain storming until you come up with the best response. Asking a friend who is more socially skilled than you are about what words they might use can also help you along with this strategy.

For instance, I heard a great one from my cousin when his sister asked his son Sam if he wanted a cookie. Putting on all the authority of a school master (which my cousin isn’t) he said, “All offers of food to Sam should be presented to me first.” His sister then laughed and said something to challenge him like “Well can I talk to Sam directly about anything?” and he said “Only if it doesn’t involve offers of food, drink or pets.” This got a bit of a laugh from everyone present and stopped his (older) sister in her tracks. The important thing with the script he delivered was that it was obviously planned and practiced ahead of time or else he would not have been ready for that moment when someone handed Sam a sweet snack. Because he was ready, not only did he avoid feeling frustrated and weak when the inevitable happened —he also looked authoritative and confident in front of his son.

Sometimes words may not even be necessary and you may be able to avoid the confrontation all together by making a better plan than you have in the past. Does your mother or father always embarrass you just as you all sit down to dinner? If so you might be ready to jump up and say you forgot something in the other room—just as you know they are about to draw unwanted attention your way.

Alcohol – if your family drinks and you don’t like the effect alcohol has on you around them there are a few good plans you can make …

  • Don’t announce that you are not drinking as this will probably make them nervous and start pushing you to drink (and them to behave even worse).
  • When asked if you want a drink, say you will have one a little later and then when you do finally get poured a drink sit on the same drink for just as long as you can without attracting attention.
  • Alternate between alcoholic and non alcoholic drinks that you can open for everyone. In Australia there is a company called Robinvale wines that makes attractive sparkling grape juice in fancy champagne bottles that are great to alternate with throughout the event.
  • If you suspect that you might have a problem with alcohol because of an allergy (Steve and myself are allergic alcoholics) stick to clear spirits and something simple like lemonade as a mixer making sure you measure the alcohol that goes in them so you don’t mix your drinks too strong. Some people try and avoid sugar in their drinks – but having a couple of lightly sugary drinks like lemonade can help make your desire to drink too much go away.
  • If you crave alcohol try mixing a half teaspoon of L-glutamine in a glass of water and drinking that before the event. This is a near miracle cure for alcohol cravings.
  • Decide before hand what time you are going home or going to bed that will avoid you having to deal with other family members when they are drunk.
  • Last but not least have scripts ready if you need them such as “I love you —– but I prefer talking to you when you are sober so let’s leave this until I see you (and then give a time in the near future).”

In-laws that put you down behind your back – This is very painful but also unbelievably common and so here are a few ideas ….

  • What is the myth that they claim about you? Don’t get hung up about it—but you also don’t need to feed that myth. If it is something you are ashamed of like drinking too much, talking too much or getting too easily upset, decide for your own sake that you are going to do your best to work on that part of your character and not give their gossip fuel.
  • At the same time remember what it is that you like about yourself and work on keeping your identity strong. Write a page of positive words about yourself with sentences beginning in “I am”.
  • If possible have some “fans” available to drop in if you need them. Can you get a friend of yours who is always up beat to drop in or give you a call at the time when you know things might get tight? This may be just the tactic you need to break your in-laws nasty spell.
  • Make sure you present yourself as well as you can. Choose something to wear that you feel very confident and comfortable in and take the time to set your hair or do whatever it is that makes you feel at your best. Taking time for yourself to be prepared in this way is probably even more important than how clean your house is or the food you serve. Put taking care of yourself first.
  • Have comebacks ready for situations where you know they may be rude. A good comeback is never an ultimatum, bluff or threat.
  • Practice negative thinking. Imagining the very worst that can happen before hand and preparing in your mind is very powerful medicine. 

There are some good examples of how to handle put downs in the short movie (that was originally made for autistic kids) here …

Exercise 2 – Take care to be at your best generally through this season by getting some fresh air and exercises and also cutting down on salt and increasing your potassium intake to make sure you have enough energy and that you stay clear, despite all the tempting heavy food that will be around. I make a big pot of vegetable stock every morning, with carrots (purple ones too!), onions, celery, tomatoes, turnips, and parsley. I don’t add any stock cubes or salt – just vegies – and I drink the hot broth from this throughout the day instead of water, coffee or tea.

The vegetable mass itself is great too and hydrates your gut with a watery mass that will sit in there for many hours where a glass of water would just go straight through you. Follow your bowl of plain boiled vegetables with some psyllium husks (about two teaspoons) mixed in a glass of water and you will help your system deal with the heavier food you eat later on.

Few people talk about the salt to potassium ratio in your diet these days but it matters a lot. I hear people say sea salt is okay – without talking about how much. Personally I find that even when I try and avoid eating salt altogether I still probably eat too much.

Have a look and see what your face is telling you. Dry wrinkly lips are a sign of dehydration and droopy eyes need some exercises looking up to the sky.

See if perhaps you need a little sun, fresh water or perhaps your diet needs a lift.

This is all about smart planning. It is the opposite of listening to all the stuff your Hare brain is going to tell you to do if you wait you are upset to decide what you are going to do. Our amygdala was great at dealing with lions and tigers (when we were not at the top of the food chain) but these days you can ignore most of the advice it will give you.

Your hare brain is that voice in your head that may suggest some extreme words or actions may be necessary. Words or actions that later on may leave you wondering what on earth you could have been thinking.

If you DO become upset make a note of what triggered this but also keep this note pretty general such as when —— (a brief description of what happened) I felt ——– (the emotion) and don’t write a whole essay.

If you do get caught off guard, it is important you are able to bounce back quickly instead of feeding your hurt and resentment.

This takes some practice and requires you to refocus your thoughts on something that will make you happy again and decide you are not going to think about what made you upset.

You may need to take some time out by yourself to do this (but try not to stomp off in a huff).

Remember it is not your responsibility to deal with other people’s negative emotions. If they choose to be unhappy that is up to them. The best thing you can do is be a positive example and learn to self soothe and keep yourself on track by focusing on your own life and goals.

Practice makes perfect and every time you decide to let your negativity or stress go and refocus on positive thoughts the faster and better you will become at this. 

  1. Think it through and be realistic about the challenges ahead.
  2. Make a better plan this time so you don’t get caught out.
  3. If you get caught out, Take some time to go and regain your own inner calm.
  4. Make a note of what triggered you to become upset.

These situations are best dealt with as they happen in the moment. If you don’t get it right this time, there is always time to practice handling the same situation better in the future. Learning to keep things in present time is vital for relationship success. This means NOT being a person who has ‘issues’ with family members (after the event) that you feel you must be confrontational about sorting out later.

Trying to solve what happened by bringing it up with the person and pulling apart the situation after the event will usually end up unpleasant at best. At worst it may make people avoid you.

Instead assess, plan and be ready to deal with the problems as they come up and if you don’t manage that, make a note, let it go and then later when you are feeling better, go back to the drawing board and work out a better plan of how you will handle that same situation when it happens next.

Hang in there!

Kim Cooper—Lets get the comments rolling!

PS. In previous years this advice has been members only content. This year I have made it available for free so please share it widely.

Steve and I are in the middle of a serious transition in our lives and so will not be around much for the next month or so. If you are interested and want to support our next venture please check out our fundraiser page.




Kim is the author of seven books on the topic of relationships and emotional intelligence.

A prolific multi-media content innovator, Kim has created and shared a library of articles and multi-media educational tools including radio shows,
movies and poetry on 'The NC Marriage', and 'The Love Safety Net'.

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. I grew to totally hate Christmas through the years. Then one year I learned that Christmas wasn’t the day Christ was born but rather was substituted by the Greco Roman empires. So I asked myself why am I an American celebrating something I don’t actually believe in? When something is a lie and we know it then we become complicit with the liars. Isn’t THAT co-dependent? As an American we are taught that we have religious freedom and that was the basis of the founding of our country. Of course that isn’t the truth either because we killed the aboriginal peoples and took over and wiped out their right to their religion. The very reservations that are in this country are full of crime because these people have been stripped of their human rights over centuries. My holiday is Thanksgiving. If we are truly appreciative of our lives then we need to pause and give thanks for real or why bother with the lie? For this year I am going to represent my Native Brothers and Sisters and bring them back to my table. It will be done through spirit first as I am not living near any at this time. But God willing, next year I will celebrate with them in body and spirit. If we are to get beyond the pettiness of the holiday season, we have to find the courage to speak our conscious about who we are and who we hope to become. I pray you all, Kim and family and your family of followers have the most blessed and gratitude filled Thanksgiving so far. Lets see what we can do!

    1. Thanks Diana and what wonderful heart felt message. Christmas is in the middle of summer here in Australia and this year we will be traveling and are considering fasting through the Christmas week – long story as to why but it does have to do with getting our lives on a more spiritual and less consumeristic path.

  2. A lot of good information Kim! I know personally how well these tactics work because you helped me through hosting Thanksgiving last year when things were such a mess with my husband and stepkids and future in-law. Using your advice, I was able to mend the relationship enough with my husband before guests arrived to get through the event. I put on a nice outfit in a flattering color and felt very confident as the guests arrived and I was finishing all of the last minute details. I accepted their help when they offered it, and to the best of my knowledge everyone enjoyed themselves. My husband kept his distance, and interacted with the younger crowd (his kids and nephews). He made a couple of negative comments and didn’t help out much, but it only reflected badly on him. It’s looking like this year my husband and I will be celebrating separately with our families. I have to travel 12+ hours. He’s used all of his vacation days.

  3. Already decided that I will not attend “out of town” Thanksgiving with the psychopathic/narcissistic in-laws from hell. It took me 26 years to pick up on these cruel, cruel, calculating people who use my clean cut living to hide under the radar with their dirty deeds. I was so jaded because they live out of town and I wasn’t around them that much. However, also jaded by my own husband’s severe narcissism while living with him under my own nose. Sadly, my husband “inherited” this same communication style and has gone brazen with his porn, alcohol, attention, and other addictions. It is “all our imagination” is what he tells us (me and our children who witness his porn hook ups in public), and in the next breath “I love you” “I love my family”. I really want him to go “get crazy” with his parents alone, but, he will not go without us. The mother is the premiere creator of chaos wherever there is peace. Then she stands back and watches the fall out. Basically a 15 year old mentality trapped in a grown up body. They are all chameleons. It is exhausting and I am making an exit plan as I truly doubt there is any hope for my sad, sad, husband. He has no clue how sad, and empty and foolish he looks when this over the hill man mingles with teenaged porn girls from webcams and GPS hook ups, and other swinging neighbors even in the middle of the night. Imagine thinking you have one of the nicest men left in the world only to find out that he was pretending to be a Christian in order to serve his purpose of wooing me so he can hide behind me. I now feel like our wonderful marriage (that I thought we had) was all a sham. If I never visit those people again it will be too soon. However, I pray God will pour our His blessings on them and someday they will see “the light”. This is just a small tip of the abusive ice berg that they refuse to own. So no, I want to eat turkey in peace this year. And I will.

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