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How to handle the good, bad and awkward family questions

Whether it's questions around your dietary restrictions, sexual preference, employment, relationship status, family planning or politics, there are many controversial topics that are often brought up around the family dinner table during the holidays. These seemingly awkward and intrusive questions by family members often make us face our own insecurities and, if internalized, make us feel rather uncomfortable. A little preparation, self-confidence and compassion can help make this holiday season a much more enjoyable one. Below are some tips on how to: 

Manage expectations. We all have some preconceived ideas of the idealistic family gatherings where everything goes seamlessly, we all get along perfectly, and our family members refrain from "bad" behaviors for an evening.  Be realistic in your expectations. If aunt Jean always comments on your outfit or weight, or uncle Ron asks every year when you are going to get a "real" job, chances are this is not going to miraculously change. Your family is going to continue to show up as themselves, the good, the bad, and the awkward. Holding out hope this will change and then facing the disappointment when it hasn’t only contributes to your suffering. Acceptance of our family being themselves is not acceptance of their behavior, nor is it resignation, it is simply a willingness to acknowledge reality. 

Have a game plan. Prepare for difficult questions that you may see coming or have struggled with in the past.  Developing responses for topics that you may be insecure about, or that are controversial in your family, can greatly reduce your stress and anxiety.

Answer questions with confidence. If you fumble, seem insecure or become defensive when answering it can elicit more questions and foster more insecurity and discomfort. Use of humor is fine, but avoid self-deprecation that you may end up internalizing.

Don’t get combative. If you feel deeply wounded by your family’s questioning, pause and send yourself some compassion. Remind yourself that you do not need family members to validate your life experiences for them to have meaning. Feel what you feel, know what you know, and set your relatives free to do the same. Relinquish yourself from the task of convincing them of anything or proving your self-worth. Try simply answering honestly with a response as opposed to reacting emotionally. You may find that taking the high road is empowering and your family will follow suit.

Regulate difficult emotions. Be kind to yourself when difficult emotions arise. Think of how you would respond to a friend if they were in your shoes and respond to yourself with the same compassion and concern. Sometimes our life doesn’t look or feel how we want it too. If you are kind to yourself about your life circumstances and do not hold yourself prisoner to the real or perceived expectations placed upon you by others, your family should follow suit.

Remember, you do not have to answer. If something asked is triggering difficult emotions, you can subtly change the topic or deflect the question back on whoever is asking. For example: "That’s an interesting question aunt Jeanie, why do you ask?" If it becomes too intense you can always excuse yourself from the table to "take a breather" and regulate your emotions. If you feel comfortable answering, answer honestly and share only as much as you feel comfortable. You are in control of the information you share about yourself. You may be surprised to find that it is actually empowering and healing to share your truth. This does not require a lengthy explanation or apologetic tone for being you. This allows for understanding, commonality and empathy. 

Have "safe topics" for your back pocket. The political and social environment is heightened right now due to upcoming elections, debates over acceptance of Syrian refugees, gender wage gaps, police brutality, gun violence and the U.S. response to ISIS. There are many controversial topics to choose from – and stay away from. Before the gathering, think of some topics where there is commonality and understanding/shared human experience, such as this holiday’s blockbuster movie, the latest best-selling book and everyone’s favorite standby – the weather.

Practice self-care. The abundance of carbs, sugars and, in some cases, alcohol you will most likely be consuming this holiday season can hinder your ability to effectively cope with stress. Setting yourself up for success with good self-care including adequate sleep and some endorphin-producing, anxiety-reducing physical exercise will ensure you go into the evening feeling rested, healthy and relaxed.

Have a little understanding, compassion, empathy. Awkward and sometimes rude questions are often misguided attempts to connect with you on a deeper level. Other times, your family member might simply be trying to make small talk and is unaware they are triggering you. Assuming that the intention behind the question is good, however misguided, may help you respond in a calm, less reactionary way. Know that family sometimes ask tough questions about your life because they are attempting to deflect attention away from their own insecurities. We all are human, we all suffer, and some of us are more self-aware than others. Stay curious with an open, compassionate heart.

In the crush of shopping, event planning and travel, it’s easy to forget what the holidays are supposed to be about. Here’s hoping that this holiday can be a time of understanding, tolerance, gratitude and love, for ourselves, and for others.


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