How to avoid political drama over the holidays
At their best, the holidays are fun and festive, but it’s no secret that they can also create plenty of stress thanks to extra expenses, travel, the pressure of expectations and — oh, joy — family drama over politics, religion and other loaded topics — especially with this year’s divisive election. But even if you don’t like some of your family members right now, you still, ultimately, love them. And skipping out on Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, New Year’s or other annual traditions doesn’t feel like the right thing to do, especially if your kids were looking forward to seeing their grandparents, for instance. So what now?
“This specific election was intensely emotional,” says therapist Dr. Deborah Sandella, author of Goodbye Hurt & Pain, 7 Simple Steps to Health, Love and Success. “Many of us identified so intensely with our candidate such that it felt like we personally won or lost. The current state of politics is calling each of us to grow into better people in ways we haven’t understood before, even if it means we have to experience a lot of fear, anger and anxiety and find ways to relate to people whose views we don’t share.” Sounds good in theory, but it’s a little — err, a lot — harder in practice. Luckily, Sandella has a few tactics for how to get through the holidays with your kids, spouse and extended family without allowing politics to ruin the celebration.
We all have wounds from our past that can become activated and exposed in indirect ways through controversial or traumatic world events, says Sandella. “This election represents so much more than choosing a president,” she says. “For many people, it has triggered their deepest emotional issues, which means that their current hurt and pain feels intolerable, but at the same time, old, hidden pain has surfaced and is available for healing. The best thing we can do is self-healing what has been unleashed within us rather than blaming external factors for our feelings, like disagreements with family members.”
She suggests taking some time to reflect on your emotions, let them flow through you and invite your deeper self to experience insight about what else could be going on. For instance, does the pain of Clinton’s loss remind you of a time when you went for something you believed in and lost or were rejected? Does the way Trump dismisses the importance of women’s rights trigger a memory of a time you were disrespected, harassed or assaulted by a man? Yes, some of these issues are symptomatic of a society that needs to heal, but you can take the opportunity to heal yourself. Pour your feelings into a journal or talk to a trusted friend before you’ll be heading home to relatives who don’t relate to your feelings. “When we unburden ourselves of hidden hurt and pain from the past, we naturally grow present in the current moment, making all kinds of problem-solving — including interpersonal conflict with family members — easier and clearer,” says Sandella.
Speak respectfully — and then listen
Many people believe it’s more important now than ever to interact with people whose beliefs differ from your own. After all, isn’t that partly why the election was such a shock — because we don’t talk to each other enough? If you’re visiting relatives whose values clash with yours, consider taking the opportunity to have a calm, respectful dialogue to try to understand each other’s point of view. Don’t, however, pick a fight or go into the conversation feeling emotionally loaded. “The idea of ‘challenging’ relatives who voted for Trump is like trying to resist Niagara Falls,” says Sandella. “Your best way of handling it is to ask if they can be patient and allow your feelings of hurt and anger. You get to have your feelings and safely share them.
On the other hand, if you’re a Trump voter spending time with Clinton-supporting relatives, it’s important to have compassion for their pain and not make it about you. Imagine how scared you might have felt if your candidate hadn’t won. Respect their pain and hear them without getting defensive.
Demonstrating an ability to listen will help them feel heard, if nothing else.” Having these kinds of open, respectful conversations will also model for your children the right way to go about disagreeing with their own peers, something that’s likely to happen over the next four years if they’re old enough to understand general politics.
Take a break from the subject
Consider making your holiday gathering a politics-free zone. “If you’re hosting, post a sign that says, ‘You’re entering a politics-free zone,’” suggests Sandella. You can also ask everyone to at least take a break from political conversations during part of the event, like the sit-down dinner. “If this doesn’t work, speak sincerely and say something like, ‘You’re my family and I love you. I don’t want us to fight because we have different beliefs. Accepting our differences, let’s appreciate what we share, which is this family,'” says Sandella. “The tone with which you speak is more powerful than your words. A challenging tone versus a caring one will create dramatically different outcomes.” (So check your sarcasm at the door.)
And if nothing else, you can always duck out for a few minutes of peace to see the sunset or walk around the block to see the festive decorations — and bring your spouse and little ones with you if you’re looking for a moment of love and appreciation with your immediate family. “Research shows that awe increases feelings of cooperation and fairness,” says Sandella.
Focus on gratitude
Perhaps even more important than trying to control who discusses what during your celebration is turning the focus — yours and your family’s — to gratitude. “Set aside political fears for the event and intentionally consider what you’re grateful for, either in your family or life in general,” says Sandella. “It’s no longer about who’s right; now is the time for compassion and understanding. If we knew the story behind each person’s reaction, it might make more sense to us, but regardless, fighting and hostility won’t help anything — in fact, research shows it can be both physically and emotionally harmful and isn’t an effective technique for resolving conflict. No matter what happens, remember your individual life is in your hands; you have the freedom to create it independent of others’ opinions.”
In other words, life will go on once you leave your family’s holiday celebration, regardless of who voted for whom. Plus, it’s another important value to impress upon your kids — that, in spite of deep disagreements and frustration in the U.S. and world at large, family and home are (or should be) safe spaces that we can take refuge in and appreciate in the midst of national chaos.