Getting Along with Family and Bringing More Joy to the Holidays

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

Woman driving to Thanksgiving gathering with turkey on top of car.

In just a few days we’ll be celebrating one of my favorite holidays—Thanksgiving. I love the holiday for two primary reasons.

First, it’s a day to pause and give thanks for the bounty and abundance of our lives. We know from science that people who make gratitude a part of their everyday lives are happier, sense more control, feel greater self-acceptance, and are better able to cope with life’s difficulties. As a matter of fact, a thankful heart is more highly linked with mental health and well-being than any other character trait. Thanksgiving is not only a day to give thanks but to recommit to cultivating gratitude as an ongoing way of life.

The second reason I love Thanksgiving is that it is a time for many of us to gather with loved ones—friends and extended family that we may not see often. I think back to my boyhood days, waiting for cousins to arrive and then playing outside before sharing the most anticipated meal of the year together.

And for me, today, it’s a time to see kids and grandkids who live long-distances that we don’t see often. It’s a day to enjoy being in one another’s company, talking, playing, preparing and sharing meals together.

A time of stress

But I also get that Thanksgiving (and other holidays) can be stressful for many reasons, exacerbated by our current social/political climate. We wonder how people are doing and if they’ll get along. We worry about whether we’ll experience or witness some of the old family dramas—people who take offense, sisters who don’t talk, arguments between certain family members, rivalries between kids, or discussions becoming heated and political. And this is to say nothing of the normal chaos inherent in gathering and figuring out a schedule, including the chores associated with entertaining and feeding more people than normal.

Tips to get along and bring more joy

So, in anticipation of Thanksgiving and the coming holiday season, let me offer you some tips to manage your relationship stress and navigate these days with greater ease and confidence.

Tip #1: Be intentional.

Choose what you want to bring to the party. Think of a potluck dinner as an analogy. Someone brings (or provides) the turkey, someone a salad, someone the sweet potatoes, someone else home-made rolls, and, of course, an assortment of pies. And so on.

In the same way, you can decide what you want to bring from an emotional or attitudinal point of view. Do you want to bring anxiety, insecurity, resentment? Or would you like to bring trust, goodwill, cooperation, or love? Being intentional means you get to decide your experience from the inside-out rather than allowing it to come from the outside-in. Your intentions are powerful influencers or even determiners of your feelings, attitudes, and behavior.

Of course, you know that it’s likely that someone is going to bring a bad mood or jealousy or emotional hurts or resentments to the gathering. The truth is that you don’t get a vote on what they bring. That’s entirely up to them. What works is to keep your focus on yourself and your intention, the contribution you want to make. You don’t control what anyone else brings. You only decide what you bring.

The statement “I choose…” is a way of expressing your intent. Give yourself some time to ponder this question and then let the answers come from deep within. Make it a deliberate choice and visualize yourself coming from that place during the holiday. And then commit to come back to your intention when you’re tempted to make a different choice.

Tip #2: Let go of a few of your “shoulds.”

Shoulds are tightly held expectations about the way people/things are supposed to be. “My sister shouldn’t argue with Mom.” “My uncle shouldn’t talk politics.” “The table decorations need to be elegant.” “My sister-in-law needs to get up and help with dinner.” “My husband should be more sensitive to my needs.” The list can go on and on. What are your shoulds or oughts? How long is your list?

There are two consequences that come from your tightly-held shoulds. The first consequence is that they rob you of peace. You feel anxious, frustrated, hurt, or resentful when your expectations aren’t met. Of course, you assume that the reason you feel anxious or frustrated is because of the behavior of other people. If they would change and do what you think they should, then you’d feel relief and happy.

But this is not true. The real source of your anxiety, hurt, or resentment is your own thoughts and expectations. As you loosen your hold or even let them go, you’ll find more peace. This is not resignation. Its allowing others to be the agents of their own lives. It is yielding to things as they are and not as you wish them to be.

The second consequence of tightly held expectations is that others hear the message that there is something wrong with them and they need to change to be okay or feel your love. This causes them to feel inadequate and resentful and sets them up to either resist your efforts to get them to change or causes them to distance from your relationship. Of course, the more they resist, the more you try (politely and/or angrily) to get them to change. Pretty soon you’re embroiled in an unhappy, collusive relationship.

My point is not that you should (there’s that word again) let go of influencing family members for good. It may be necessary to talk to the kids about “holding it down” or talk to a spouse about your needs. My point is that it works best when you start with yourself. Examine your own expectations (and resultant judgments) to know if they are helping or hurting you in achieving your intention or improving the quality of your relationships. And then considering loosening your grip (if only a little) on those expectations that don’t serve you, that rob you of peace and happiness, or create conflict with your loved ones.

As you let go of so many of your shoulds and oughts, you’re able to see people more deeply and show up in a more loving way for the real people in your life and not just your image of how you want them to be.

Tip #3: Give up the need for everyone to be happy or get along.

This is really a specific application of the last tip, and bears its own commentary. As I stated earlier, you don’t get to vote on the choices of others (what they choose, usually unconsciously, to bring to the gathering). In truth, it’s emotionally exhausting to feel responsible for other people and their actions and feelings. Instead, it’s necessary to accept that you can’t make everything all better for everybody. More importantly, you don’t need to.

Are you willing to let people feel how they feel? If someone is unhappy, can you just accept them where they are? They may not yet understand that their happiness or unhappiness is their choice. Can you accept that reality? They don’t have to get it for you to get it.

You can find great peace if you can let go of your need for them to be happy or get along (so you can be happy). That need puts you on an emotional roller coaster and makes you victim of how and what others are doing. Realize, instead, the truth that you can be happy because you choose to come from that place and not because those around you have achieved a higher state of self-awareness and personal responsibility (as much as that would make your life easier).

Tip #4: Handle politics or controversial conversations courteously.

I’m not suggesting that you talk politics. In fact, a lot of family and friends are going to go out of their way to avoid sensitive and controversial subjects. It might even be okay for you to ask for an agreement that you won’t talk politics. That’s certainly appropriate if you’re not confident in your ability or your collective ability to speak about controversial topics in a sensitive and respectful way. Your relationships, after all, are not about your political beliefs.

And yet it may come up. Perhaps some family members feel similarly to each other and love to vent about what’s happening in your community or country. If not comfortable for you, it’s okay to ignore the conversation or even get up and leave the room. You don’t have to decide what others do, but you don’t need to put yourself in a situation that brings up too much stress.

Or, you may decide to engage. After all, learning to talk respectfully about our differences of opinion is a skill many of us need to learn, something seriously lacking in our country today. But I want to recommend that you only engage if you can do so in a way that invites understanding and unity rather than polarization and divisiveness. You don’t need a conversation to turn ugly.

Here are a few principles to help you have a productive conversation, if you do decide to engage.

            Argument vs. dialogue

Understand the difference between argument and dialogue. The purpose of an argument is to persuade, convince, or coerce others into adopting your point of view which quickly leads to elevated blood pressure and polarization. The purpose of dialogue is to generate mutual understanding (not agreement). Your demeanor and approach will be very different if your objective is understanding rather than persuasion. It will allow you to bring a calm curiosity to the conversation rather than defensiveness and reactivity.

            Create an understanding at the outset

Perhaps you establish a few guidelines if a controversial topic comes up. You may say something like, “I’m interested in this discussion. However, I know that we have strong opinions and can easily polarize. I don’t want that outcome with my loved ones and believe you don’t as well. So, may I suggest that we follow a few guidelines: We respect differences of opinion. We listen sincerely to what others have to say. And, we recognize that our purpose is to create understanding and not change one another’s minds. Can we do that?”

            Be open and curious and practice good listening

Be genuinely open and curious about another’s point of view. “How do you see things?” Listen for understanding. You don’t have to agree. Accept them where they are and avoid the temptation to set them straight or prove them wrong. Your purpose is to understand. Be willing to be influenced. Be willing to see the truth or nuggets of truth in someone else’s point of view.

            Share your point of view

Share your point of view, non-dogmatically. This often works best after you’ve taken time to listen. You may start with something like, “Here’s my take…” Or, “Here’s another thought or point of view.” Your purpose is not to convince them that you’re right. In fact, needing them to agree or approve of your point of view is a hook to become emotional and defensive. The only approval you need is your own. So, just put out how you see things and let it land however it may.

            Back and forth

In dialogue you go back and forth and back and forth. You listen, nondefensively, to another’s point of view. You really want to understand. And then you share, non-dogmatically, your point of view, without expecting that you’ll get agreement. By communicating in this way, people feel an underlying respect and even unity. They become more open to one another’s views and, although not in a single conversation, begin to develop a fuller and more complete understanding of reality.

Doing this is not easy. It requires a great deal of emotional maturity. Of course, you can’t bring that for other people. It’s hard enough for yourself. But as you change the way you communicate and interact around sensitive issues, you set a tone and example. Perhaps not immediately but over time others may follow. And whether or not they do, you’re growing in emotional intelligence and your ability to communicate effectively.

Again, I’m certainly not recommending you do this during your holiday gatherings. But if such conversations come up, perhaps you can engage in a helpful way. (For more information on this subject, see my course Become a Master at Conflict Resolution at Home or Work.)

Tip #5: Take time to nourish yourself

Be present and mindful during your family gatherings. Check in with yourself and how you’re doing. Pause, once in a while. Notice your breathing. Then notice the sensations in your physical body (tension, aches, etc.). Then notice your feelings. Finally, pay attention to your thoughts. Notice without judgment. Come from loving kindness towards yourself.

Ask yourself what you need—physically, mentally, or emotionally and be willing to seek or give yourself what you need, if not in this moment, perhaps later. Do you need a few minutes of alone time? Maybe a walk outdoors would feel good.  Is there one person, in particular, that you’d like to connect with? Maybe you want to liven things up a bit by suggesting a game or activity. The important thing is to be self-aware and responsible. Awareness will keep you whole and allow you to better meet your own needs as well as engage in a more loving way with others.

Tip #6. Savor all the good

Of course, the whole purpose in getting together is to experience goodness, love, and joy. Family and friends matter and are our most important gifts. Gathering is a great blessing and opportunity to savor all the good moments together.

I think of savoring as a form of mindfulness in which you slow down to intensify and prolong your enjoyment of an experience, one you may too easily take for granted. It is about being fully present in the here-and-now rather than living in the past (what happened last night) or future (an obligation next week). It is becoming more aware and using all of your senses—sight, sound, taste, smell and touch—to heighten your present experience.

You savor as you:

  • Are fully present with someone—look in their eyes, give them your full attention as they speak, and become aware of what is going on in their life and world.
  • Slow down and notice the textures and tastes of a meal rather than gobbling it down (no pun intended).
  • Look deeply at a the blue (or grey) sky, a flower, or tree.
  • See what brings someone else pleasure.
  • Immerse yourself in a game rather than thinking about what you have to do when it’s over.
  • Pay complete attention to a chore—preparing a meal or washing dishes—and by so doing make it more enjoyable.

Although my purpose has been to address the stresses and how to get along during the holidays, I get that these are moments filled with fun and happiness. You will enjoy these times more fully as you savor all the good they offer.

A final thought

I get that there will be ups and downs during your family gatherings. After all, that’s life. So, expect and allow the hard times. You don’t have to pretend they won’t happen. But bring your intentionality to these times. You may not change a circumstance but you can change your focus and intent. Then let them pass rather than holding on so you are able to be more present to all the good in your time together.

So happy Thanksgiving to you and your family and friends!

And feel free to comment below on your thoughts or how it goes for you and your loved ones.


About Roger K. Allen
Roger K. Allen, Ph.D. is an expert in personal transformation and family development. His tools and methods have helped tens of thousands of people live happier and more effective lives. To learn more, visit www.rogerkallen.com>.

8 responses to “Getting Along with Family and Bringing More Joy to the Holidays”

  1. Sheila says:

    Thank you for sharing this. It’s comforting to read and know that I can become more emotionally intelligent.

  2. Amber Price says:

    This is really great Roger! Love all of your insights and help.

  3. Don Friel says:

    Happy Thanksgiving Roger. Thanks for sharing. Things our going much better for Marge and me. And also Thanks for listening

  4. Mickey Adams says:

    Thanks Roger! Great ideas! I feel more peaceful already! You have a gift sir! Thanks for sharing!

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