Visiting family for the holidays is not always resoundingly joyful. Uncle Arlo’s racist jokes might not have you laughing. And your mom’s insistence that you’d look better with a haircut makes you want to deck something other than the halls. The bad news: We have to accept our family members as they are. The good news? It’s not your responsibility to change them.
“With my clients, there is often a direct relationship between the amount of time they spend attempting to change another person and their level of suffering,” says Erin Foley, Ph.D., a life coach in Portland, Oregon. “The more we attempt to change or fix someone else, the more we suffer.”
Here are some tips for letting go of anger, annoyance and resentment when avoidance is not an option:
Related: 10 Ways Successful People Stay Calm
1. Be honest about why you’re mad.
If your brother is bragging about his latest Costa Rican adventure, consider what insecurity his trip is triggering for you. Have you always felt like he was more successful? Do you envy his child-free lifestyle? Manage your feelings by explaining to your boastful brother why you get prickly with him. Say, “I’m sorry I shut down when you talk about your vacations. I feel bad I can’t give my family the same kind of experiences. But I really am happy for you, even if I don’t always show it.” This might sound crazy, Foley admits, and it takes a lot of emotional security. But it also opens up communication channels.
2. Respect your own boundaries.
Other people don’t cross your boundaries. “You let someone cross them,” Foley says. She offers the example of parents who want you to visit for a week because they complain that they never get to see you. You’d prefer three days, but you cave in to the guilt and then grow angrier each day of your stay and blame your parents for guilting you into such a long stay. Protect your boundaries from the get-go. “People often want me to tell them how to hold their boundaries without upsetting others,” Foley says. “But the harsh reality is that it’s not possible.” If you tell your parents you are staying only three days, they could get mad, or they might not. Their reaction is their choice.
3. Treat your family like strangers.
Sounds, well, strange. But have you ever noticed the conversations you have with strangersare more pleasant than those you might have with your family members? “That’s because we have a history of neuro-associations with everything our family members say,” says Robin H-C, author of Thinking Your Way to Happy! “We acquire a way of listening to them that involves a position, judgment and opinion.” Pretend you just met them. When your mom says she really liked a particular book, instead of thinking to yourself, Figures she likes a book with a narcissistic heroine, genuinely ask her, “What did you like about the novel?”
Focusing on and appreciating the positive aspects of people’s personalities—your brother is an amazing storyteller, your parents are so generous—will make your time with them much jollier, whether it’s during the holidays or just any old day.