For some of us, the holidays are a blast, you see family, you eat, you have some drinks, and you feel good. For others, the family is hard to get along are some ways that might help.

A guest blog from Courtney Lawson at NAMI Southeast Minnesota.

You CAN Avoid Awkward Family Gatherings this Season

By Courtney Lawson

Judging from the greeting cards many of us are sending and receiving this time of year, the reindeer-trodden path through the holiday season is lined with snow-dappled evergreens and glittering lights, leading to a warm fire in a cozy cottage with smiles and laughter all around.

Sometimes, though, the room isn’t filled with smiles or laughter. Tension lies heavy on the perfectly roasted turkey. Exaggerated sighs make candle flames flicker. The atmosphere is unsettled and electric, as if something is about to erupt.

Often, the epicenter of the fragile environment is one person. The relative that you never quite know what reaction a seemingly innocuous comment will bring. In some cases, the response is driven by an underlying mental illness, one that may or may not be diagnosed (a caveat: challenging personalities are certainly not limited to those living with mental illness; however, many people who are affected by mental illness struggle with emotional regulation).

If the heads around the table had thought bubbles, they’d say the same thing, “There s/he goes again.” Eyes roll. Arguments start.

This holiday season, resolve to keep anger and hurt away from your family celebrations—especially those that include people living with mental illness—by remembering the following:

  • Recognize the extent of your control. I live with mental illness, and also have family members who do, so this situation has played out in my life. One of the most valuable concepts that I learned in therapy is that the only control I have is over my reaction. Period. That relative have different viewpoints, reactions and personalities adds to the richness of the family, and can coexist without threatening my own.
  • Respect and honor their reality. Albert Einstein said, “Reality is an illusion,” and truly, it is. Even if a loved one seems out of touch with your reality, honor that it is their reality, and respect it.
  • Don’t pry beyond what someone wants to share. Perhaps the family grapevine is abuzz with rumor and speculation about the wellness of a loved one living with mental illness. Curiosity abounds, but that does not give carte blanche to interrogate the person in question. Let them decide what they want to share and respect those boundaries.
  • You don’t have to understand to support someone. One of the comments I have heard frequently by those who have never lived with a mental illness is, “I just don’t understand it.” Here is the thing: it is not necessary to understand someone’s experience to support them. In actuality, it’s not your experience to understand. However, you can still listen non-judgmentally, provide support and let someone know you’re in their corner whether you “understand” or not.
  • Practice tolerance. The fact of the matter is, we all behave in ways that irritate others sometimes (gasp!). We also know, deep down, that people are probably not going to change too drastically. Remember that you can always walk away from a situation—spend a couple minutes doing deep breathing in the bathroom, help with the dishes, change the subject, etc.—when it is heating up. You are fully in control of your reaction.

This year, make a pre-New Year’s resolution to embody a greeting card message and interact with “peace” and “joy” to everyone you meet. Happy Holidays!

You can reach Courtney Lawson at NAMI Southeast Minnesota.


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