Relatives for the holidays? Here’s help!

We all know that being with our families, especially if we’re going to our childhood home, or if we’re going to be on ‘their’ turf, can bring up old feelings, old ways of being, that we’ve outgrown. We feel uncomfortable, or even miserable. We begin to wonder what’s wrong with ourselves, and why we aren’t acting like the person we know we’ve become.

You know, you go home, and your mother makes a comment about your clothes, and all of a sudden, you’re 15 again, and resentful. Or your uncle is drinking again, and everyone rushes into their old enabling ways — and you now see them for what they are.

And maybe you blame it on them.  Remember — all relationships are two way streets. As the old saying goes, it takes two to tango.

Here’s what you need to know to cope:

  • It’s not about the present, it’s about the past — Because you have such a long history between you, you automatically fall into old patterns. These have been hardwired into your brain through long practice. 
Research shows that anything you do regularly creates neural pathways in your brain, and then you automatically run down those paths. A good analogy is lots of people walking between the same two buildings across a grassy field will literally create a dirt pathway, which new people then follow. 
Don’t beat yourself up about this, just notice it and consciously choose a new path. This is work — go easy on yourself.
  • They’re not evil, they’re just being who they are – If you’ve changed, and maybe even if you’ve just gotten some distance and some new reference points, you’ll see dysfunction in things that just used to be normal

Judgment is singularly unhelpful here — acceptance is a much better choice, even if you choose to set some boundaries for yourself around the dysfunction. At one point in my life, I decided that when I didn’t want to hear an elderly relative’s racist comments, I would just get up and leave the room, as quietly and unobtrusively as I could. There was no point in trying to change her, and no point in hanging around and feeling angrier and angrier. BTW, going to the bathroom is a useful ‘excuse’ in this situation. (PS – no one ever noticed.)

  • They expect you to be who you used to be – Why wouldn’t they? They haven’t been with you when you’ve had transformative experiences — and unless you’re extraordinarily close, you probably didn’t mention them over the phone, either. 

My mother still thinks my favorite cheese is Jarlsberg, even though I’ve discovered I’m mildly allergic to cow’s milk, so my new fave is Manchego, a sheep’s milk cheese. Yes, I’ve mentioned it, but why would she remember? I’m gracious, as I thank her for trying to remember my preferences, as I remind her — and then I eat a sliver, because I do still like it.  

  • You expect them to be who they used to be – This is the same thing – you may be surprised to find out your relatives have, in fact, changed. You could make a game of noticing – or asking – what their biggest discoveries have been since you’ve seen them last. In that spirit of rediscovery, you might find it easier to change the old annoying ways of relating. 

Armed with  these tactics — have fun! Something new may await you.

Hollis Polk is a personal coach (, who has been helping people create lives they love for 15 years, using neurolinguistic & hypnotherapy techniques, decision science, clairvoyance & the common sense learned in 20+ years of business. She is an NLP Master Practitioner, hypnotherapist & has a BSE in engineering from Princeton & a Harvard MBA. She is also a successful real estate broker, investor & business owner.