“So, why aren’t you married yet?”

(Umm, can I get a drink before you start asking me about this?)

That was how Christmas dinner started for me a few years ago.

I walked in the door to my relative’s house and just after taking off my coat, I got asked my least favorite question.

And believe me, nothing says “Merry Christmas” better than a comment that could be better translated as “Most people your age would be married by now. What’s your problem?”

I look forward to the holidays every year, and I love seeing my family, but holiday gatherings can be awkward (see above), stressful and just plain overwhelming at times.

Even when your family gets along, there is something about “The Most Wonderful Time of Year” that can bring out the crazy and neurotic in all of us.

Maybe it is the extra drinking that a lot of us do at the holidays, or the pressure to buy the perfect gift, or the expectation that just because it is November/December that our lives should be perfect and happy.

But the honest truth is that for many of us, the crazy train makes a stop at our holiday gatherings every year.

While I am blessed with a great nuclear and extended family, we have weathered our fair share of stressful events and their inevitable influence on our holiday gatherings.

Over the years, I have used the following strategies to keep myself focused on the best part of the holidays and avoid getting sucked into unnecessary conflict.

How To Preserve Your Sanity At The Holidays

1. Get Clear

This step is all about figuring out what you really want to happen at the holidays, and then making as much of your vision happen as possible. And this is way easier to say than it is to do. Because if you are anything like me, your vision for what makes you happy can get heavily influenced by what what makes other people happy, and may drift away from what you truly want.

I love traditions, but they can also work against you here. As you think about what you really want, watch for the phrases “__________ would never let us…..” or “We could never change….” as a sign that you may not be fully exploring all the possibilities at your disposal.

This year, I decided I really wanted to cook Thanksgiving at my house with a few friends. I have spent the past few Thanksgivings with dear friends, and was worried I might hurt their feelings by declaring my intention to cook at my house. But, because we are such good friends, they understood completely. No hurt feelings. And we all get to do what we want 🙂

2. Know Your Conflict Triggers

This step is NOT about spoiling for a fight. Rather, it’s about being really honest about what situations tend to produce stress and trigger arguments.

This was easy to see in my family, particularly with my dad. Every holiday when I would fly home, my dad would very graciously offer to pick me up from the airport. Each time, I would be really happy to see him and we would be talking excitedly until we got in the car. Then, before we left the airport property, we would get into an argument about his driving.

After about 7 or 8 times of the the same one-act drama being played out, my dad and I hashed out what was going on. Turns out, my nervousness and back-seat driver tendencies made him nervous and perpetuated the aggressive driving moves that made me want to jump out and take a cab home.

Knowing that the airport pick-up was a trigger for us, we both became more mindful of how we were behaving and stopped arguing. And I have made it home safely every time 🙂

3. Respect Your Limits

The holidays are a time of overindulgence on many fronts. Food and alcohol are the obvious culprits.

But this step for me means setting good time and activity boundaries for myself. There are so many people to see and things to do that it is really easy to overburden my schedule.

I came face to face with my limits at Thanksgiving about 6 years ago. As a physical therapist, I had a limited amount of time off and would fly back to Virginia early Thursday morning (read: 4 am wake-up call) to make it home for 2 pm mealtime. I caught myself telling one of my relatives on that Thanksgiving something along the lines  of “Do you know how early I had to get up? You should be really grateful that I’m here.”

Kinda not the spirit of Thanksgiving, when you are resentful of the things you had to do to get there.

So I decided that year that unless I had more time, I would stay in Austin for Thanksgiving. I miss my family on that day each year, but I now enjoy the time I spend with them at Christmas even more.

4. Be Present

It is easy to get sucked into replaying disagreements that happened in that past, particularly when you don’t see your family very often during the year. Or, you might be tempted to start worrying about the future instead of staying focused on the present moment.

I learned this the hard way the year my parents got separated. I was so worried about what was going to happen to us as a family (we are fine!) that I honestly don’t remember anything about that holiday.

I have found that focusing on things I am grateful for helps keep me anchored in the present moment. And when I am in a space of gratitude, I am more pleasant to be around, too 🙂

5. In Case of Conflict: Speak From The Balcony

This step is magical. “Speaking from the balcony” is a technique that Martha Beck (life coach and author) teaches. With this technique, if someone behaves in a way that creates anger or conflict, you say what you see as if you were watching a play and sitting in the balcony seats.

I used this technique when my relative who was acting like the marriage police kept asking me why I wasn’t married and then tried to hit the hot buttons of other family members.

I said, “I notice that you really like to stir the pot and get people all riled up.” He looked at me funny and then walked away. Later, he started trying to get a rise out of another relative I was talking to when he suddenly stopped, looked at me and said, ”I know. I like to stir up trouble.” And then he walked away.

This technique allows you to state how you see things without getting personal. And that allows the person you are in conflict with to see their behavior without all of the  unproductive “you suck” judgements that normally go along with arguments.

6. Make Time For Yourself

Whether you are spending 3 hours or 3 days with your family at the holidays, you will likely need to carve out some time for yourself amidst all of the family togetherness.

I’m not ashamed to admit that sometimes I go to the bathroom or to “look for something” in another part of the house just to have a few quiet moments to myself and hit the reset button on my emotions while at the big family dinner.

If you are staying with your family for more than a day or two, it’s important to try to keep a sense of connection to your normal daily rituals.

For me, this means getting up to walk every morning. I look forward to both the exercise and the coffee (because every walk is better with coffee) and find that this calms me and puts me in a good mood as I face the rest of the day.

7. Reward Yourself

This is classic advice from my mom, Kay Springer. It’s easy to feel depleted or let down after the hustle and bustle of the holiday, even when you aren’t recovering from family drama.

Doing something nice for yourself, like going to see a movie or getting a pedicure, can help refill your energy tank. And it’s fun!

These steps are a good first start to decreasing stress and conflict at the holidays. But if you want more specific help to manage your family or holiday drama, sign up for a free 45 minute strategy session to explore how coaching can transform your holiday mojo!

I wish you all a happy and healthy holiday with your family. I am grateful for you!

PS- If you know someone who could use some stress relief at the holidays, please forward this post to them!