The six commandments for Christmas family peace

The six commandments for Christmas family peace

1. Accept that everyone is a bit controlling at Christmas, so resist gently
Most of us like Christmas done our way, but some get particularly agitated if things aren’t just so. People are controlling when they’re insecure or anxious, and the only way they can maintain inner peace is by imposing order externally. They need everything to be perfect and to be seen to be perfect — they seek external validation because they don’t feel great on the inside. If you’re their guest, that doesn’t mean sacrificing your needs wholesale. For instance, one friend took along a homemade dish — to the chagrin of his mother-in-law — because his son loved his dad’s leek gratin at Christmas. Being assertive is not being rude — just don’t be brutal.

2. Don’t let petty disappointments get the better of you
At Christmas we can throw a tantrum over someone dispensing with a fond tradition such as that pre-lunch drink in the pub or giving us a sugar mouse from the cat. Receiving a shoddy gift can also set us off — the world’s problems shrink to the size of those nylon fingerless gloves. We sulk at the insult of being misunderstood, the implication that this is our worth or the hurt of being given insufficient thought. Be aware of this and give that person the benefit of the doubt. Did they intend to hurt us? Or were they simply fraught or short of time? Accepting that there was no malicious intent can stop us bearing a grudge. If it’s really an issue, vow to be specific about present requests next year.

3. Ban politics
This is a day of peace and goodwill, and with that in mind you don’t have to be the host to insist, or even beg: “No talk of Brexit, religion or politics at the table.” None of these subjects mixes well with alcohol. You might suggest that anyone breaching this edict must walk four times round the table backwards while singing a song. And if people disobey and become shouty, say: “Er, that’s an outside voice — save it for the post-lunch walk!” Those keen to rant about Brexit, religion and politics can do so in the bracing fresh air — everyone else can trot ahead to discuss Succession and throw a squeaky ball for the dog.

4. Don’t worry about the parties you weren’t invited to
Every year that couple in your social circle throw a Christmas party and don’t invite you. Or you witness your undeserving ex happy with their new partner. Even if you wouldn’t have wanted to attend, or are relieved to be free, there’s a twinge of feeling rejected or self-pitying. You think, “What’s wrong with me?” and plan elaborate ways of rejecting them back.

The irony is, if your child hadn’t been invited to a party or had fallen out with a friend, you wouldn’t say, “They don’t like you — and no wonder,” or, “You must have said the wrong thing.” You’d be full of nurturing wisdom — “They’re not your closest friend,” or, “You’re lovely, funny, smart, and it’s their loss.” And that is the kind of treatment that you should extend to yourself. Then, instead of feeling miserable and festering with resentment, you can admit that you didn’t want to attend their dreary party anyway/are far happier single.

5. Identify what sets you off and take a breath
Certain people are excellent at needling us. “You’re touchy!” they cry after they’ve said or done something outrageous and you’ve snapped. To change the Christmas record you need to, as we therapists say, do some work on yourself. That means being aware of and able to manage your triggers — the comments or behaviours that provoke an extreme emotional reaction in you.

Tell yourself: “I have no control over my reaction, but I do have control over my response.” (Your reaction is your gut feeling; your response is what you actually do.) And if your response is not what you would like it to be, consider why those particular things they say or do affect you so badly. Often it’s because they gel with the views of your inner critic — that harsh internal voice in our head (the ghost of critical people from our youth).

It also helps to analyse the needler — why, instead of controlling themselves, are they trying to control you? When you know the probable answers, you can pause in that moment of heat. You realise that you can choose to let them set your mood, or think: “Good try, but no, I’ll listen to my real self rather than what they, or my internal critic, is telling me.” That might translate as realising that you’re raging because this person always expects you to wait on them, and their latest breezy demand typifies the status quo. Take a breath and use humour to convey that they can get their own drink. Losing your temper might make an impression, but a calm cast-iron “no” is often more convincing.

6. Be militantly kind
This sounds more selfless than it is. Start with the principle that this year no one will puncture your party spirit. So if there’s a person you find difficult and vice versa, you might surprise them by setting the tone with a friendly approach or compliment. Your attitude is to be generous, but expect nothing back. Doing the right thing is your reward (sorry). It’s a kindness not an investment. If you expect niceness in return, you’re held emotionally hostage to their behaviour.

I wish you a peaceful Christmas!