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Surviving Holiday Gatherings
by Dr. Dale V. Atkins, December 2005

We Idealize the Holidays
Often we fantasize about our expectations of holiday gatherings and dream of the perfect celebration; everyone united in family harmony. You know, the event when sibling rivalry is checked at the door, there are no intrusive or sarcastic comments about your social life, employment, appearance, or children. People are treated respectfully, graciously, kindly and everyone has the feeling that everyone else is so happy to see them that there could never be enough time to spend together. Right? Wrong.

Maybe it's Time to Change Your Perception
No one has the perfect family or lives in the perfect world, yet we hope and pray that THIS year things (people) will be different. Maybe it's time to examine and come to terms with what the holidays really mean to you. Instead of trying to change the behavior patterns and attitudes of your family members, change YOUR perception and attitude about how you can still enjoy the holidays and find meaning when you are together with your family. You can accomplish this while at the same time keeping all of the enriching family rituals that are so important to you, your children and your family.

Savour Family Time and Enjoy Everyone's Company
The holidays do not just have to be about who brings what to the table (and I am not only talking about the food.) It can be a time for communal reflection, family stories, sharing of memories, as well as hopes for the future.

Sanity Savers
Here are some Sanity Savers to help you along just in case your holiday experience falls a tad short of the idealized image. And remember, even though it may seem so, you are not the only person whose family doesnít look like the one in the ad.

1. Keep your expectations realistic or better yet donít have any expectations - Even though weíd like our holiday celebrations to look like a magazine spread and be thoroughly enjoyable, this is an idealized view and is likely to go sour. Instead, allow yourself to "go with the flow," expect last minute changes, keep a sense of humor and donít take things personally.

2. Approach gatherings with a feeling of gratitude - Believe it or not, everyone in your family has affected you in some way and itís important to concentrate on the positive contribution they have made to you as well as others.

3. Focus on a specific quality, personality attribute, or gift each person in the family has given you - Savour that big hug and kiss from your niece rather than her tantrum later on when she spills gravy on her new holiday dress.

4. Go with an open mind - Donít get bogged down with family "history" (baggage) that has little bearing on today. Open your mind and hopefully your heart will follow. Remember as much as you may want people to change you cannot change them. You can, however, change yourself and your attitude.

5. Be aware of triggers from the past that you donít want to repeat with certain family members this year - If you know that your sister is still fuming about forgetting her birthday, give her a cherished family photo that she may not have or invite her to doing something fun and out of the ordinary.

6. Think about what you can bring to the gathering - Everyone in a family makes their own unique contributions. What can you do this year that reflects your own personal touch? Understand that you may not be the center of attention.

7. Focus on making your time with family special - There are not many days out of the year when family members are all together. So use the time wisely and tell each one what they mean to you or what you have learned from them. Bring a camera or a recorder to document the family interaction in the way you would like.

8. Ask non-intrusive questions about what people are interested in and doing with their life - Be genuinely interested in their stories and listen with attentiveness. Suspend judgment.

9. Do not feel propelled to respond to personal questions directed towards you - Instead politely disengage from the conversation. When asked, "So have you got a girlfriend?" respond, "Thanks for your interest, Iíll let you know when it happens". Or if someone inquires about your job hunting, answer them by saying, "I appreciate your concern but today, Iím not talking about work."

10. Share the parts of your life you want to share. Be careful not to violate your own boundaries - Politely direct conversation in another direction. Be careful not to get pulled into old patterns or assume an old role.

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