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Published on December 22nd, 2016 | from CAMH

‘Tis the season: Strategies for dealing with toxic interactions

By Dr. Vivien Lee, Psychologist at CAMH’s Work, Stress & Health Program

Vivien - headshot

Dr. Vivien Lee

It’s that time of year again. Holiday cheer, winter festivities, dinner parties…and that one family member who makes sure to remind you of everything you’re doing wrong in life.

Many of us would enjoy holiday gatherings so much more if it wasn’t for that person who always seems to have something negative to say – you know who I’m talking about. In their interactions with you, these people might be:

  • Passive aggressive — “What a nice red dress…too bad it shows yours arms.”
  • Critical or judgmental — Frequently criticizing your and/or another’s appearance, career, parenting, lifestyle, etc.
  • Prejudiced — Making discriminatory comments about minority groups even if they know you don’t agree with what they’re saying.
  • Narcissistic – Many things you say may be construed as a slight against them, or they may only want to talk about themselves.

You know you’re going to see these family members, and as a result, holiday gatherings can be uncomfortable and/or upsetting. Here are some suggestions for dealing with toxic interactions to help you enjoy the holiday season!

Planning ahead

Research shows that the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour. Use your past experiences with these individuals to try and prepare as much as possible. Ask yourself some important questions: Who is likely to upset me the most? Is it only when they speak about certain topics? Is there anything that has helped deal with this person in the past?

From there, it’s about developing coping strategies, trying to understand where the person is coming from, and finding a ‘buddy’ to prevent anything from getting out of hand.

Developing coping strategies 

What works for you when you’re upset? It may help to take a few deep breaths, go into another room, go for a short walk or talk it out with another member of your family or friend.

Understanding where the other is coming from

This can be very difficult, but in a calmer state of mind before the gathering, it might help to think about where this person’s negativity is rooted. As aggravating as their words can be, understanding why they think or act the way they do can help you to feel more empathy or at least patience towards them. Are they feeling lonely or abandoned? Are they envious? Are they struggling with uncertainty in their own lives?

For example, at dinner your mother keeps criticizing what your kids are wearing, their extracurricular activities, and the amount of time you spend working. It’s frustrating, right? But where is this coming from? Maybe she wishes she saw her grandchildren more, or had more involvement in your family’s life.

The point of this is not to excuse their behaviour or to say that it’s okay, but to make sense of it.

Come up with a ‘buddy system’

There’s likely someone else in your family or friend group who becomes upset by the same person, or at the very least, they sympathize with how distracting this person is for you. Buddy up with that person, and be on the lookout for signs that the other is becoming upset.

 On-the-spot strategies

The moment has come; you’re confronted by the person who makes you upset. Perhaps you didn’t have time to plan ahead. What are some good in-the-moment strategies for interacting with this person?

Plan ‘safe topics’ for discussion

Avoid confrontational topics such as religion or politics and instead keep the conversation light. Ask the questions and guide the conversation, avoiding those ‘problem topics’ along the way. Who knows, maybe you’ll discover you have some similar interests!

Acknowledge something positive in what they say

This may be difficult, but try to find some kind of positive intent in what the other person is saying. You might respond to a critique by saying, “I appreciate you want the best for us, but let’s focus on enjoying dinner with the kids.” This can help the other person feel heard and less defensive when you steer the conversation in a different direction.

Last resorts: Shut it down or walk away 

If this person begins to make negative comments that are making you uncomfortable, politely but firmly shut it down. Let them know you do not want to discuss whatever it is they are talking about, and if that doesn’t work, you may need to physically walk away from the situation. And that’s okay! If you’ve been diplomatic, you don’t need to stay there and take it.

Let’s face it – family gatherings over the holidays can be stressful. But that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy yourself. Taking time to prepare strategies can go long way to making your holiday season a little less frustrating and a lot more fun!

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