Holiday Survival Guide; Strategies for Surviving Holiday Dinners, Family Events and Other War Zones

Nov 10 22:00 2004 Kevin B. Burk Print This Article

No matter how well we may have ... our basic ... nothing can fully prepare us for the front lines of family ... We're in the thick of it, dodging live ... and fighting the

No matter how well we may have weathered our basic training,Guest Posting
nothing can fully prepare us for the front lines of family
gatherings. We're in the thick of it, dodging live ammunition,
and fighting the urge to return to our old, reliable patterns
that helped us to survive while we were growing up. We may have
mastered our relationship skills in one-on-one relationships. We
may have improved our romantic relationships, our professional
relationships and our friendships. And we may have even improved
our family relationships--one family member at a time. But when
we're sitting around the holiday dinner table or socializing at
a wedding reception with our entire family, it's an entirely
different experience.

For one thing, when we're with our entire family, we have to
juggle a number of different relationships at the same time. Our
attention is divided at best, and for many of us, our awareness
deserts us completely after the first major skirmish. We feel
like we're surrounded and have to defend ourselves from sneak
attacks. We often feel that retreat is not an option. When we
are cornered, we often believe that the only way that we can
survive is to fight our way out, new relationship skills be

While most people assume that General Sherman was referring to
the Civil War when he stated, "War is hell," in fact, he was
referring to a particularly memorable Thanksgiving dinner with
his family. This also explains why he could send his troops into
battle without a second thought, but that the very mention of
cranberry sauce would reduce him to tears.

Bearing this in mind, here are some essential tips for surviving
your next family gathering.

The first, and most important survival tip is to remember that
navigating and surviving family gatherings takes exceptional
skill and often quite a bit of practice. We will not be able to
transform our entire family dynamic between the salad course and
the pumpkin pie. In fact, we may not be able to change our
family dynamic at all--and it's important that we accept that we
don't need to. It's not our responsibility to help our family
members resolve their issues. We're only responsible for
resolving our responses to their issues. Our objective is to
maintain our own safety and validation accounts, focus our
awareness, and survive the family event reasonably unscathed.

However, maintaining our awareness while we're relating to our
families takes practice! We must go easy on ourselves. We may
react when we would rather respond. We may be drawn into old
arguments. Whatever happens, we need to accept that it is
perfect. We are doing our best, and that's all we can ever ask
of ourselves. And remember that our awareness that we're acting
out an old pattern is, in itself, a change in that pattern! As
we develop our awareness, we will spend less time caught in our
old patterns. Over time, our awareness will help us to make
lasting and permanent changes in those patterns.

This piece of advice is equally as important as going easy on
ourselves, but it's often a bit more challenging to follow.
Essentially, we must be willing to forgive our relatives for
everything. We must be able to accept that they only ever did
the best they could at any given time. We need to begin to
recognize and relate to our families as people instead of as
family members. We need to begin to know them for who they are,
and not simply for who they are to us.

When we embrace the truth that even our family members are
individualized aspects of All That Is, our relationships with
our families will shift dramatically. Our family members are
some of the most powerful teachers we will ever encounter in our
lives. They also tend to be the most accurate and powerful
mirrors for us, which, of course, is why we often find it so
difficult to love and accept our family members unconditionally.
In order to love our family members, we would also need to be
able to love and accept ourselves.

Even so, we can love our family members unconditionally and
still only choose to sit down to eat with them once a year.

In our other relationships, we can usually recognize when we
feel unsafe and move to a safe space so we can disengage our
egos. Once we restore the balance in our safety account, we can
return to the discussion and explore it without feeling
threatened--and without threatening our partner in return. When
we feel unsafe in our family relationships, however, many of us
feel that we're obligated to stay and fight. This is simply not
the case.

When we are aware that we feel triggered by a family member, we
can simply choose to excuse ourselves and visit the bathroom.
The bathroom is the one place that we can be assured of our
privacy, and we can stay there as long as we need to. We can use
the bathroom as a sanctuary where we can regain our composure
and gather our strength so that we feel safe enough to return to
the battle. If any of our family members are indelicate enough
to comment on how much time we seem to be spending in the
bathroom, we can always plead an upset stomach or a weak

We have to be very clear about our objectives in terms of our
family relationships. If our ultimate goal is to improve our
family relationships, we have to be willing to stay focused on
the big picture. The most difficult lesson for most of us to
accept is that in order to win the war, we have to be willing to
lose the battle. Our long-term objective is to feel more safe
and more validated in our family relationships. To reach this
goal, we must help our family members to feel safe and
validated. In order to do this, we must be absolutely clear that
we are capable of meeting our own safety and validation needs.

We often experience our families as competitive environments.
Our old blueprints tell us that there's a limited amount of
safety and validation available, and that we must compete with
the other members of our family to meet our needs. We insult and
snipe at each other because we can only feel safe and validated
if the balance in our accounts is greater than the balance in
everyone else's accounts. The more we care about earning other
people's approval and validation, the more vulnerable we are.
When one of our family members makes a comment designed to make
us feel less valid, we do not need to defend ourselves. We can
recognize that this person is asking to be validated, and we can
validate them. Sometimes, this means letting them think that we
are less successful, accomplished, and generally wonderful than
we truly are.

We must be willing to lose every single family argument we
encounter. Letting our family members win the argument allows
them to feel safe and validated. As long as we remember that we
create our own safety and validation, and we do not need to
compete with our family members, we can lose the argument
because it will help us to win the war. We must let our family
members believe that they are right about whatever the issue is,
no matter how blatantly wrong they actually are.

We know the truth. That will have to be enough for us.

If we want to relate to our family members as they are now and
not as we remember them being in the past, we must eliminate
three words from our vocabulary: always, ever and never. In the
lexicon of family "discussions," always, ever and never are
relationship air-raid sirens. They signal that an attack has
been launched and it's time to duck and cover. Specifically, we
must avoid some of our favorite statements in our family
relationships such as, "You always behave this way," "When have
you ever supported me?" and "You never give me any credit." If
we find ourselves using any of these words in a similar context,
it's a red flag that we're focused on the past and not on the
present. Likewise, when our family members use these words about
us, they're relating to us as we were, not as we are.

As soon as we become aware that we are using these words, we
must stop. It's likely that our use of these words has made our
family member feel unsafe and invalid. We can apologize for
having used one of these words, and acknowledge that we have
been unfair. Something about the current discussion has
triggered an unpleasant association for us. If appropriate, we
can rephrase the statement, keeping it specific to the present.

If we're on the receiving end of always, ever, never statements,
we can choose to respond, rather than to react. In the middle
of a family get-together, the wisest choice is often to deflect
the statement, perhaps even acknowledge that the statement may
have some validity when applied to the past, and then change the
subject. If the discussion has uncovered an old wound, the wound
will still be there for us to heal at a more appropriate time
and in a more appropriate environment.

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About Article Author

Kevin B. Burk
Kevin B. Burk

Kevin B. Burk is the author of "The Relationship Handbook: How to Understand and Improve Every Relationship in Your Life." The above article is an excerpt from "The Relationship Handbook."
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