It won’t be the same old holiday season this year, but if you’re planning to see any friends or family members, some things will probably feel familiar: holiday movie marathons, plenty of delicious food, and, if you and your loved ones have different political views, arguments, particularly after an exhausting, stressful, and contentious election season. If you’re seeing friends or family with different views, don’t go in unprepared. To help us (and you!) navigate the situation, we turned to experts for their best advice on how to handle the holiday season. Read on for everything you need to know to make it through as unscathed as possible.
1. Prepare in advance
First thing’s first: you don’t want to go into this situation entirely unprepared.
“Acknowledge that you have differing views and try to come up with a game plan for the holidays together,” Heidi McBain, MA, LMFT, LPC, PMH-C, a licensed marriage and family therapist, said. “It may be that you all decide to agree to disagree and not discuss politics at all, or it may be that you do want to discuss politics, but with some safety measures in place such as using active listening skill and if things get too heated the discussion ends.”
Doing this together ahead of time if possible may help ensure that both sides (ideally) adhere to whatever you’ve decided. If even the idea of this kind of conversation makes you feel stressed or nervous, getting help working through those feelings might be a good idea.
“If you’re feeling a lot of anxiety about seeing family and friends during these hard times, you may want to reach out to a counselor in your state to further discuss these issues,” McBain said.
2. Don’t shy away from conversations
Conversations with family members or close friends about how their politics affect people and the ways in which they can cause very real harm. It can be a little nerve-wracking to begin these conversations for any number of reasons, including cultural norms, family dynamics, and more, but they’re necessary. In an article she wrote for The Everymom, contributing editor Reshmi Hazra Rustebakke gave some advice on how to talk to your family about race that can help you figure out how to approach difficult conversations.
First, make sure that you’re starting calmly, instead of angrily. It’s tempting to just react after someone says something, but try to keep that in check and respond calmly so that the conversation can be more productive.
Hazra Rustebakke also advised asking the other person questions instead of doing all the talking yourself. Telling them statements instead of asking questions can make them feel like you’re attacking them, which can make them shut down or tune you out. The whole idea is that this conversation will be productive, so if they feel overly defensive, it’s like that the conversation won’t go anywhere. She also recommended arming yourself with facts, so that you can respond with factual information instead of emotion (though it’s probably understandable if there’s some emotion in there too).
Knowing when to end the conversation (and—hopefully—pick it up again later for more productive discussion) is also important, Hazra Rustebakke said. You can’t force someone who is unwilling to change their mind. It takes time, but every small bit helps.
3. Make sure you’re being kind to yourself
Your family or friends may never agree with you 100 percent (or even be willing to keep an open mind during any discussions), and them being unable or unwilling to even validate how you’re feeling can be really difficult.
“Jot down or keep in your phone a few phrases that make you feel affirmed and validate your emotions,” Dr. Rebekah Montgomery, PhD, a psychologist specializing in both individual and couple’s therapy, recommended. “Of course you might feel upset, disappointed or angry. This has been a brutal year and the level of intensity around our politics has gotten ridiculously high. It’s also likely why your friends or family are feeling so reactive too. Practicing some self validation can help you let go of needing that from your family.”
4. Set your boundaries—and stick to them
Whether you set the boundaries verbally with your loved ones or keep them internal, make sure you do actually have some sort of guidelines you’re following. Know when you’re going to walk away or during what kinds of events you’re unwilling to talk about it at all. It’ll help you take care of yourself, which is so important.
“Decide in advance how much you are willing to engage in political conversation and what you will do when you want to disengage from the topic,” Tracy K. Ross, LCSW, a couples and family therapist, said. “There is often a fine line between stimulating and engaging conversation and feelings of alienation and anger that can easily lead to tension and heated arguing—is this the way you want to spend the holiday or weekend?”
If you figure out what your boundaries are, you can make sure you’re following them.
“Boundaries create freedom—if you know it will be respectful and won’t devolve into name calling and animosity there is a greater chance for a productive conversation,” Ross said.
5. Set an intention for family time
“It could be to connect, to make good memories, relax, take good pictures, enjoy the present moment,” Montgomery said. “Have a few goals that guide you throughout. When you get distracted, upset, or burnt out, use your intention to guide you to how you want to respond or spend your time.”
Your intentions may even help you break through the heat of the moment or temporarily end a conversation that’s no longer productive.
6. Give yourself a time limit
Time limits mean that you’ll be able to have an out if you need one.
“It’s helpful to make a commitment to yourself to either disengage from political discussions, give yourself a time limit, or have a set of boundary setting phrases i.e., I would rather not talk about this, so we can enjoy our time together,” Montgomery said. “We’ve debated about this for 15 minutes, let’s take a break and talk about something else.”
And again, making sure that you’re enforcing boundaries, no matter what they are, can actually really help both you and your loved ones.
“Limits make people feel safe and actually allow for closer relationships,” Ross said.
7. Disengage when need be to take care of yourself
Ultimately, taking care of yourself—especially if you’re personally harmed by the views and policies that your loved ones support—is most important. Spending the whole holiday expending tons of mental, emotional, and physical energy is going to take a toll on you.
“Make sure to set up some time alone or to connect with your support system outside of who you’re spending time with,” Montgomery advised. “Take breaks, and in those times take care of yourself, get support from your like-minded support group, get outside, be active, meditate. Be sure to have a list of activities either on your own or with your family that make the holidays enjoyable for you. What are the happy and joyful things you like about the holiday or make you feel connected to your family. Perhaps there are old traditions, meals, movies, games, activities, rituals. Maybe you want to create some new rituals.”