A therapist's survival guide to holiday hell
Getting up close & personal with that uncle who's into QAnon? The cousin who wants to talk adrenochrome? Here's how to cope
So I figured a lot of us are going to be heading off into the fabled “Christmas and New Years Period” — a time that will be full of unbridled joy and excitement, rest and relaxation.
And while the pandemic may be keeping some of us apart, you may also be about to enter the hellscape of certain family and in-laws, drunk uncles and annoying cousins. And with that — you’re about to encounter a shitload of terrible ideas.
You will probably hear some racist stuff, some sexist stuff, and you will definitely be forced to listen to a bunch of misinformation and conspiracy-riddled bullshit that will make you want to plunge your fingers directly into your eye sockets. Or their eye sockets. But that’s a crime, so don’t do that.
My point is that it will be very easy to lash out and become irritated — but I also figured there’s probably a better way. So I reached out to a friend of Webworm, Paul Wilson.
He’s the psychotherapist that’s written about how to deal with people who’ve fallen down the rabbit hole. So I asked him to share his advice for dealing with questionable friends and relatives over the Christmas break.
As usual, he’s wise and wonderful and I hope this advice is helpful. Talk soon.
Some words from Paul Wilson, therapist:
So you’ve survived the year — and what a year. Yay, now you have to try to survive Christmas gatherings with various relatives who may lean conspiracy-ward, or who you just have political differences with. Ideally, with the crockery and your dignity intact. And for some us, that’s not so simple.
Why does this happen?
Is it you? If you’re not someone who normally seeks and enjoys a good argument (which is completely fine between consenting adults!) it’s more likely you’re just hitting a mixture of generational and temperamental differences. The holidays are a time when people of different generations and different interpersonal genetics get together. That stew can get spicy and cause heart-burn of more than one kind.
There are a pair of stable personality traits with a partly genetic underpinning which tend to influence lots of facets of our life and values, including but not limited to our political orientations.
Psychologists call the first dimension “Openness to Experience” and it correlates with more liberal and progressive attitudes, and the tendency to prioritise kindness and personal freedom.
The other personality dimension is called “Conscientiousness” and it correlates with more conservative attitudes, and the tendency to prioritise social conformity and respect for tradition and authority.
Conservatives also tend to be a bit more anxious in general — and death anxiety (the awareness of our mortality) also tends to increase with age. So that predicts for slightly increasing conservatism as we get older since we grow more attached to the status quo — namely the one in which we are still hale and hearty.
As I mentioned, these have a genetic basis — and with all things genetic, “Diversity is the Norm” — so you might just be the one in your family with a heightened Openness dimension and the rest of your family doesn’t (or vice versa). Or it’s someone’s partner who is counter to the family norm. When it comes to personality traits, we are often attracted to partners who seem better at things we struggle with – at least initially. Like if we’re quiet, we might be attracted to people who are more outspoken.
How should I handle this?
Now given that these differences exist, what to do about it depends on the situation. Feel free to mix and match from the following scenarios and suggestions to find an approach that works for you:
I’m different from them and they don’t know.
Firstly, perhaps you are the orchid in a field of dandelions. By an accident of biology and temperament, most of your family is different to you politically. And so far, you’ve chosen to keep it quiet and are not ‘out’ to your family about being progressive, liberal, or having voted for Joe Biden.
Possibly there are other identity issues you’re not out about either. It’s natural to want the people we are close to know who we really are and to feel like we are accepted and belong. Humans are social animals (most of us, anyway) and that’s just the way we’re wired. Being accepted for who you pretend to be, either by omission or commission, you often end up feeling increasingly hollow. If you are in this position, I get it and I feel for you. It probably doesn’t come as a surprise that “Openness to Experience” is the personality dimension that I personally score highest on.
That said, with ‘coming outs’ of any kind, it’s pretty risky when attempted as bold declarations in a group setting. When you’ve risked lowering your guard and are now in a public position of vulnerability, all it takes is one insensitive person to rain on your parade and make it a really shaming and painful experience.
So, these things are usually better done on an individual face-to-face basis, starting with the person you have the strongest bond with. Even then, they won’t always react as you wished initially. They may need a bit of time to process their emotional responses and then come back to you with how they now wish they had responded. As frustrating as this can be, resist the temptation to tear off the band-aid in one go unless you’ve emotionally prepared yourself for all the possible outcomes.
Okay. So your family and their partners are aware that you think differently to them politically and it hasn’t gone well in the past. There are two possible scenarios that need consideration.
1) I’m different from them, they know, and it can get nasty
I’m going to start with the more troubling one, which is the minority — but it does exist, and it needs acknowledging for those who have to go through this. Because maybe you don’t start these fights but some other attendee has a history of saying things to bait and provoke you. Now, it could be that person is actually either narcissistic or sadistic. These are both technical psychological terms for forms of unpleasantness that roughly translate as ‘bully’ in plain language — but they are different kinds of bully.
Everyday narcissists get mean when they feel threatened, exposed or disrespected. Maybe they had a bad day, week or year (didn’t we all). Or there’s the election and this Christmas, they might try putting someone else down to make themselves feel a bit better. And that’s no fun if that person ends up being you.
Everyday sadists are a nastier problem since they’re not just thin-skinned or reactive, but actually enjoy provoking other people into publicly losing their composure. One of the ways to spot this is intellectual inconsistency. Namely, they’ll happily change argument positions from last year (or last minute) since getting a big reaction out of you is the real payoff for them. Sadly, people like this likely view you as something of an emotional piñata which they will thump from different sides until you explode in tears of humiliated fury. My heart goes out to you.
Either way, with both of these types of unpleasant people and it’s wisest not to argue about emotive topics with them at all: “Never wrestle with a pig. You both get dirty and the pig enjoys it.”
Now, since upsetting you is the point, be prepared for them to persist by attacking different causes or issues you care about. If you fail to take the bait, some will escalate into ‘snowflake’ allusions or claims that ‘your opinions are so weak you can’t defend them’.
In the face of that, you might just want to say “Bless your heart” (a great Southern phrase) or something like “You’re welcome to assume that if you like”. Maybe that will divert them – maybe not. But it doesn’t pay to try to have the last word — that’s their tar baby strategy for getting you engaged and enraged.
To misquote WOPR, the supercomputer from the 1983 movie Wargames: “Nuclear (family) war is a strange game in which the only winning move is not to play at all.”
Now, if they just won’t give up and there are family bystanders who care about you, you can try saying something like: “Ouch! When you say things like that, it really hurts and upsets me, and I just want to have a nice time together as a family.”
This is an assertive statement where you are expressing the vulnerability and hurt that likely sits under the anger you’ve responded with in the past. Since it’s your internal feelings you’re sharing, no-one can really argue with it. Also, this is more likely to elicit empathy and support from others around you and it exposes the real game and highlights the mean-spiritedness, without you having replied in kind and ceded the moral high ground.
If the bully in question is the partner of a family member, maybe the scales will even begin to fall from their eyes. In the immortal acronym of Dan Savage, they might start thinking about DTMFA – “dumping the mother-fricker already”. However, as Rocket in one of my favourite movies, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 would point out: Dan didn’t say fricker.
Taking the risk of being vulnerable like this is only a good idea if there actually are other family members who will have your back. If there is more than one of these bullies at your gatherings and they like to tag-team or their behaviour goes unchecked by the others, that is an emotionally abusive situation and sometimes your only real power is how long you offer them the privilege of your presence, if at all.
Set your boundaries and know that, like toddler’s, people get increasingly dysregulated when overstimulated or overtired, not to mention disinhibited after having ‘overindulged’.
Be there for the meal and the clean-up and to spend time with the people you do enjoy but, set a time limit and don’t stick around for when Uncle Ted or Auntie Jemima slides down into ‘mean drunk’ territory and starts circling around looking for someone to vent their spleen at.
2) I’m different from them, they know, and it can get heated
Now, whilst abusive family dynamics do exist, the more likely situation is that normal political differences are present, and you just seem to find an increasingly long list of things to disagree on.
Now, you might be thinking that given everything that has happened in the world in 2020, this is the holiday where you’ll finally win that grand argument and show them the error of their ways and they’ll say: “Given your well-reasoned arguments, I now realise I was completely wrong about everything I hold dear.”
Well, realistically, there are exactly two chances of that happening — a fat chance and a slim chance.
To understand what’s possibly going on here, I recommend moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics And Religion. Now, it’s only two days to Christmas and that’s a decent sized book, so here is my capsule summary. If this sounds helpful, credit is due to Jonathan Haidt, and any mistakes are mine. So if this catches your interest, maybe you can read his book to prepare for next Christmas.
As I see it, Haidt’s core argument is that, contrary to popular belief, our moral positions are largely emotionally driven and we then rationalise them after the fact. Confirmation bias is powerfully involved, which means we tend to pay more attention to evidence that supports our beliefs, and we ignore or downplay evidence which contradicts them. We all do this to a lesser or greater extent. It’s just part of how human reason evolved.
Anyway, what often happens in these political arguments is that we are all coming from a place of assuming the other person is just wrong (obviously!) and we’re more focused on trying to figure out whether it’s because they are stupid or evil — and even then, we’re not quite sure which is worse.
What goes under-appreciated is that we are often speaking in different political ‘dialects’. The words we are using — ones like “fairness” and “equality” and “freedom” — don’t have the same underlying meaning to those with political differences, so we’re talking past each other. And often, we’re not really listening anyway. When they’re talking, we’re focussed on thinking of our next point of refutation. And they’re doing the same thing when we’re talking. So you can see why this often doesn’t end well.
So we need to ask ourselves: Do we want to be right, or do we want to be related and relaxed? If the differences are significant and you want to enjoy your time together, on the advice of counsel, I suggest you might want to plead the fifth. Try saying something like “Oh, you know I see things a bit differently but let’s not get into that. Can you pass the potatoes?”
Now, if you still want to try to have a more meaningful conversation, you might want to try aiming at creating understanding, rather than trying to ‘win’. This is emotional labour. If you want your position to be taken seriously (and you do, right?), you’re going to have to offer the same courtesy.
Ask yourself, “do you have high enough emotional reserves and a low enough blood-alcohol level to successfully attempt this?” Emotional conversations and alcohol go together about as well as tequila and handguns.
To get to that understanding, try to tease out the actual values underneath their positions and focus more on those. For example, given an extreme position like QAnon conspiracism and child endangerment, explore why this issue matters to them, and their personal history with it. Give them the benefit of the doubt and assume their concern for children’s welfare is actually genuine, just somewhat um… misdirected.
Paranoid ways of looking at the world in adults is often linked to unacknowledged or dissociated relational trauma from childhood — either abuse or neglect. That might be what they are unconsciously alluding to without consciously realising it. In this way, their attachment to dramatic or conspiratorial issues is akin to a kind of dream symbolism rather than literally being about children in underground prisons.
If you want to make a difference, you may need to put some emotional armour on and ‘go over the bridge’ into their subjective world. Try and see the world and the issue through their eyes. Repeat it back to them to be sure you understood it, and then try and validate their feelings given their perspective.
Note that you’re not agreeing with their position — you’re just saying some (or all) of it makes sense to you, given their assumptions. They are not stupid or evil – they just have different assumptions and perspective than you do. And now you can invite them to do the reverse.
Generally, you have to pre-emptively offer empathy to get empathy. And if you lower your expectations that you’re going to radically change them, you can both preserve the relationship and maybe plant a seed of doubt about some of their assumptions.
Spend some quality time with your people
If any of the above situations rings true, know that you’re not alone. We don’t choose our parents or our family or their partners. So that means that for you, Christmas means spending time with people largely due to ancestry. Make sure to have some real soulful and playful moments with your chosen family — like your friends, your partner and your children. For me, it will likely include watching Guardians of the Galaxy Volumes 1 and 2 since we’re all huge Marvel fans.
So to the Webworm community, I wish you all a great Christmas. Remember to fight the good fight for ‘We are Groot!’
- Paul Wilson
David here again. Many many thanks to Paul. Love that guy.
Good luck out there, you. I imagine after the year we’ve had, some of you will be wading into a family scenario that’s looking about as attractive as a meeting with a bunch of Cenebites:
But my advice is to take Paul’s advice, and maybe your Christmas won’t feel like your skin is being peeled off your body in the pits of hell.
Before I go, if you have the means you can always become a paying Webworm member, to help support the work I do here. It’s $6.99 a month, or $69.69 (USD) a year to get all the Webworms — and to know you’re helping keep the important stuff going out for free. Only ever do this if it doesn’t put your under financial strain. You can also gift a subscription to someone you love (or hate!)
The line about playing nice and possibly planting a seed of doubt about their beliefs has stuck in my head - so hopefully I’ll get to try it out.
Next year please do a survival guide on relatives asking when you’re going to have children - there needs to be a better response than visible disgust.
Have a nice Christmas David! I can’t add pictures but imagine I’ve inserted a festive “Henry Rollins building a gingerbread house” here - a true classic.
Racist, sexist, homo/transphobic relative, believes some conspiracy theories. Mainly because of fears I think, but still sucks. I just do not engage. Can't unravel that for them, so even if they bring it up, I just get out by saying we will never agree and immediately change the subject. Kept the peace for some time now as they know they cannot goad me into a debate.