9 Tips to Get Through Awkward or Triggering Holiday Gatherings

9 tips to get through awkward or triggering holiday gatherings

While the holidays are a festive time for most, for others, it can be a time of additional stress, daily triggers, and awkward interactions with family and friends they rarely see. For those needing a little extra guidance and encouragement, here are 9 tips to help you get through these awkward and/or triggering holiday gatherings.

1.Know Your Limits and Set a Timeframe

Maybe you are genuinely excited for the big Thanksgiving, Christmas or other holiday celebration coming up, but you’re dreading spending 8 hours with Uncle Tom who can’t seem to stop sharing his endless list of problems. Maybe large gatherings simply exhaust you or you just can’t spend more than a few hours with a certain group of people.

I’m here to tell you, that is OKAY. Don’t feel guilty and don’t force yourself to stay longer than is good for you. In fact, set a time limit! After thoughtful consideration, set a timeframe for how long you want to stay then communicate this with the host of the party. Consider telling a friend or family member who supports your decision so they can help support you when it is time to leave.

Action Item:
  • Know your limits and set an appropriate timeframe to attend the gathering.
  • Communicate this timeframe with the host.
  • Communicate this timeframe with someone who supports you and will help you stick to it.

2. Greet the Person(s) You Are Dreading to Talk to FIRST

It’s okay if you aren’t ecstatic to see everyone at an upcoming gathering. But rather than trying to avoid them the entire time and have that stress weighing on you throughout the event, greet them first. This has two key benefits.

First, you get that conversation(s) out of the way and you can enjoy the rest of the event. Second, because you are greeting them first, you can truthfully use several of the “outs” listed below. It is much easier to say, “I still need to say hello to several other people so I am going to go catch up with them now”. Or something similar.

Action Item:
  • Talk to the people you want to avoid FIRST.
  • Use the “outs” listed below to end the conversations quickly, but respectfully.

3. Prepare an “Out” for Conversations

Let’s not beat around the bush, most of us have those two or three people we desperately want to avoid conversation with. Possibly because they would sit there talking your ear off until someone physically dragged you away. Maybe everything they say comes from a place of negativity and in the end, you are left drained and disheartened.

Whatever the reason, you don’t need to be afraid of those conversations any longer. If you prepare a few thoughtful “outs” beforehand, you can enter into those conversations knowing they can end whenever you choose. And let’s take that power back, shall we? Remember, we are no longer children forced to sit at the table while grandma lectures us on some outdated topic.

They can only talk your ear off if you let them. Granted, it is unfortunate they don’t have the self-awareness to realize what they are doing, but at the end of the day, we need to have the confidence to end those conversations before our eyes glaze over.

Thoughtful “Outs”:
  • “I’m so sorry to interrupt, but I haven’t had anything to eat yet and I am having a hard time tracking the conversation. I’m going to go grab some food, but it was nice catching up.”
  • “I’m so happy to hear you are doing well, there are still so many people I haven’t said hello to yet so I am going to go catch up with them as well.”
  • “I’m so sorry to interrupt, but I really need to use the restroom. Would you excuse me?”
  • “I’m sorry to cut this short, but I promised “so and so” that I would help prepare the food (or set the table or wash the dishes, etc) so I am going to go help them now. It was good to catch up.”

4. Set Conversational Boundaries

There can be so many triggering topics that get brought up in conversation. For me, it’s politics. As a child, my family couldn’t discuss differing opinions on politics without a big argument, someone getting angry and offended and then ruining the entire atmosphere. 

So at a very young age, I set the boundary with my family that I don’t discuss politics. Now, my family rarely brings up politics with me, but on the rare occasion that say, my dad, tries to push that boundary, I just say, “Dad, you know I don’t discuss politics.”

Of course, if others want to discuss it amongst themselves, I don’t try to stop them, I simply remove myself from the conversation and quite possibly even the room. The point being, if there is a topic you are uncomfortable discussing with certain people, set that boundary and stick to it.

Action Item:
  • Communicate boundaries in regards to topics you are not comfortable discussing.

5. Keep it Light and Positive

Sometimes, we find ourselves stuck in a conversation with someone who simply refuses to see anything in a positive light. These are the conversations you want to get out of quickly. But you also don’t need to succumb to the negativity. While in the conversation, keep pointing out the positives and then use one of the “outs” from above to exist the conversation.

Action Item:
  • Keep pointing out the positives even if someone is trying to see only the negative.
  • Exist the conversation using one of the “outs” above.

6. Re-Frame Expectations

This is a key strategy. While the holidays may mean interacting with individuals you are less than eager to see, they may also be the only time a year you see people you are genuinely missing. Many of us leave holiday gatherings disappointed because we come to them already stressed and depleted from our busy lives. Our emotional cups are empty and we want to be filled.

Unfortunately, a big holiday gathering may not always be the best place for this to happen. Adjusting expectations can help us get the most out of a party or dinner, without leaving feeling disappointed or even more drained.

Recognize that a large gathering may not be the environment to have the deepest conversations or to just lounge on the couch catching up with your favorite relative. Especially around the holidays, there is food to prepare, people to coordinate, dishes to clean, 50 people to say hello to, and the list goes on. 

With this in mind, if there are people you genuinely want to connect with on a deeper level than just a quick “hello”, refer to the next tip.

Action Item:
  • Have realistic expectations about what you are wanting to achieve at the event.
  • If you know you are needing some quality time with people, use the next tip to make that a priority.

7. Prioritize Time with Individuals You Genuinely Want to See

I’ve never been a fan of small talk and I grow even less so with each passing year. I crave genuine conversations where real meaning and value are exchanged between participants. I used to go to every family gathering eager for these conversations and then disappointed if I didn’t get to have them with all the people I was hoping to.

I definitely have re-framed my expectations, but I also make it a point to seek out the individuals I am eager to connect with and tell them. As soon as you can after arriving, connect with these people and let them know you would love to sit down with them at some point throughout the event and really catch up on a deeper level. 

I guarantee you they will appreciate it and it will now be on both of your radars to find each other at some point and make it happen. And by the way, we often get interrupted during these cherished conversations and it is perfectly okay to let the intruder know that you are having a one-on-one discussion right now. 

You could say something along the lines of, “Hi Aunt Jody, Katie and I are having a one-on-one conversation right now, but we would love to come over and chat with you in a few minutes.”

Action Item:
  • To the people you really want to connect with, let them know as soon as you arrive.
  • Consider setting a time to reconnect and chat.
  • Try to sit next to each other during the meal.
  • When you do come together for your one-on-one conversation, consider finding a quiet area that is more secluded so you will not be interrupted as much or maybe even going on a quick 10-minute walk.

8. Re-Frame Triggers as Opportunities

This is a big one. Reconnecting with family can bring up many unresolved issues. Often times, issues that we aren’t even consciously aware of. I recommend two courses of action. First, if you find yourself getting easily annoyed with someone, internally angry, feeling uncomfortable, take note of these moments.

Keep a note on your phone of the things that happened that triggered you or made you uncomfortable. Re-address these moments at a later date, maybe with a therapist, a loved one, or simply yourself and a journal. 

Triggers, while uncomfortable, can be extremely telling in regards to unresolved trauma or emotions we may still be harboring deep within.

Second, recognize you probably won’t be able to resolve these triggers during the gathering. With that said, take note of them and then imagine them just rolling off of you like a ripple of water. Getting defensive or attacking the other person verbally in that moment is rarely helpful.

I would be remiss if I didn/t point out that most of us are living from a place of hurt and are acting unconsciously out of our own unresolved trauma. Look at the individual with compassion and then commit to working through your own triggers at a later date.

Action Items:
  • Make a note anytime you are triggered or feel uncomfortable throughout the gathering.
  • Recognize that now may not be the best time to actually address these issues with the individual.
  • Recognize that the person triggering you may be acting from a place of their own unresolved trauma and emotions.
  • Let the emotions roll right over you and internally commit to working through those triggers later.

9. Give Yourself Permission to NOT GO

I want to end with this because it is absolutely critical that some people read this. If you know the environment of a certain gathering is toxic, unbearable, or simply too much for you to handle at this time, you do not need to attend. You don’t, period. And the people who truly want what is best for you will respect that decision.

If you find yourself going to an event for no other reason than pure obligation, please give yourself permission to forgo that gathering. If there are people there who you genuinely want to see, ask if you can grab a coffee or a meal on a different date. Communicate your desire to spend time with them, but explain that the environment is too triggering or harmful to you.

If you need a little extra incentive to stand up for yourself, consider this. Attending an event you have no desire to attend is not beneficial for anyone involved. The people there who may be the reason you don’t want to go will try to take advantage of you for their own self-serving purposes and you will probably end up zoning out at some point and be incapable of connecting with anyone anyways.

While there may be one hundred reasons a person dreads the holidays, my hope is that this article can help relieve at least some of that angst. We are all on our own journey. Holiday gatherings clash a mass of people together who are all at different points of their path. 

For some, gatherings become more pleasant with each passing year and loved ones all commit to healing past hurts. For others, they feel sucked into a kind of Deja Vu each year as their close relatives seem stuck in who they were 20 years ago.

We don’t have any power over them, but we can be the masters of our own choices. If you do consent to attend a gathering, use the tips above to enjoy your time more and make the most of each interaction. Or, if you know the event will be too much to bear, use this article as the encouragement you need to finally say no, I won’t subject myself to that level of toxicity anymore.

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