5 Tips to Get Through Tense Holiday Gatherings Without Losing Your Cool

Posted on December 20th, 2013

How to keep your cool during the holidays?Dreading the get-together with family this holiday season? Do you feel tightness in your chest at the thought of spending more than 10 minutes with Uncle Bob after he’s had his fifth double vodka? Worried that things will get out of hand with other family members who launch into a tirade about everything you’ve done wrong in your life? Are you afraid that you’ll be so stressed out by the situation that you’ll feel compelled to drink, go out and smoke weed or stuff your face again?

If so, you’re not alone. The holiday period, while joyous and memorable for many, is also the time of year when those in recovery can be taxed to their limits. Relapses between Thanksgiving and New Year’s are not uncommon.

It doesn’t have to be this way – not this year, not for you. Here are five tips that may help you get through tense holiday gatherings without breaking your pledge to sobriety or losing your cool:

Be realistic about what to expect.

You know your family and the friends who traditionally stop by during family holiday activities. With this knowledge, you’re armed with plenty of evidence about how people interact, often when they’ve had a few drinks. Don’t expect that this year will be any different. Know what you’re in for before you show up for the holiday celebration. Most of all, make it a point to have your strategies firmly in place for how you’ll deal with various eventualities.

Set your personal boundaries and abide by them.

If you know from past experience that certain family members or friends are typically drunk by half-time, make it a point to leave the party before that happens. If the family meal hasn’t yet happened, your reasons for leaving should be reasonably legitimate. You could say you feel ill, which isn’t entirely untrue. After all, the dysfunctional behavior of others is threatening to your sobriety. If you have to go home to take the dog out, you could offer to return later. Just be sure to live up to whatever you promise. Sometimes just leaving the room for a while will break the tension and you can safely navigate the rest of your time there. Whatever technique you use, it’s important that you set your personal boundaries and abide by them. Don’t let others goad you into participating in an escalating argument or push your buttons to the point where you can’t resist picking up a drink or hiding in the corner consuming plate after plate of food.

Learn how to make it not about you.

What ratchets up an argument most and makes it highly likely that things will get out of hand is when the topic is one of your hot buttons and the attack is directed at you. While it may be difficult to change the subject, it could help defuse the situation, although you’ll need to handle it with care. If your older brother decides it’s time to tell everyone within earshot how many scrapes you’ve gotten into during your drinking past and how he was always the one to bail you out of trouble, what can you do? This, as your brother is totally soused and can barely speak coherently. Probably the less said the better. You could acknowledge that you did behave pretty badly, but you’ve gotten help and now you’re committed to sobriety. Then find someone else in the room to talk with, or exit the room to help another family member with the meal, play with the kids, take out the trash, go out for a walk or do some other activity. This way, you’ve defused the situation and steered it away from being about you.

Know when to walk away.

During a tense situation when someone is trying to antagonize you and get you to participate in an argument, know the signs and be prepared to walk away. You have the power to deflate the situation by your actions. You don’t have to stand by while others assail you, trying to aggravate you to the point where you join in the dispute. Recognize that others may become verbally or even physically abusive toward you, especially after they’ve had too much to drink. You won’t be able to control the interaction, so don’t try to. When you signal that you’re not going to participate, you give yourself a safe exit. Here’s another instance where a brisk walk outside might be the best remedy.

Be an active listener.

Find someone in the room who’s usually shy and engage them in conversation. Practice being an active listener. Really pay attention to what’s being said, without interrupting the other person. Unless specifically asked, don’t offer any advice. Just listen. This will help pass the time in a socially acceptable way, and keep you sane and safe from giving into triggers that may be present around you. You also might learn something new about this person. Just don’t start the conversation anywhere close to the bar or banquet table. There’s no sense fanning the flames of your cravings.

Bottom line: The holidays needn’t be stress-filled and anxiety-provoking if you plan ahead and take well-thought-out action. Make this year the start of a new and healthier way to get through holiday gatherings.

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