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Published December 23, 2012, 11:30 PM

Holiday survival guide

FARGO – The holidays, though a cherished time with loved ones, can also be a stressful time. While there is plenty of blood-pressure-raising traditions this time of year, one of the main contributing factors is our family – our wonderful, dysfunctional, sometimes maddening family.

FARGO – The holidays, though a cherished time with loved ones, can also be a stressful time.

While there is plenty of blood-pressure-raising traditions this time of year, one of the main contributing factors is our family – our wonderful, dysfunctional, sometimes maddening family.

Whether it’s an uncle, cousin or in-law, there are many different types of family members with many different types of personalities that stress us out every year.

Using the examples of some of these relatives, we asked Jenny Emmel, a licensed counselor at Quality Life Counseling in Fargo, and Jon Ulven, a mental health expert at Sanford Health, for some tips to help you survive the holidays and enjoy your family time.

Drunken uncle and guilt-inducers

There are some family members that, year after year, deliver those stressful moments you’ve come to expect, like the drunken uncle or the guilt-inducer.

Popularized by a character on “Saturday Night Live,” the drunken uncle is perhaps an unfair stereotype to uncles everywhere. But whether it’s a boozing uncle or anyone else, that person inevitably starts conversations that makes everyone else cringe. Abortion? Immigration? Politics? Their ex? Anything is fair game.

The guilt-inducer, meanwhile, can also come in many forms (though typically a parental figure), and will make you feel bad about yourself by passive-aggressively commenting on different aspects of your life. Perhaps your mom wonders why you’re still single, when you’re going to have a baby or why you never answer her calls.

The key with these types of people, Emmel says, is to not let what they say or do get to you.

“One of the things that you can do … is breathe deep, cleansing breaths,” she says. “Be in the now, in the current moment. Not in the past or in the future.”

One way to accomplish that, according to Ulven, is with an approach called “acceptance and commitment therapy.”

This means you need to stop and reflect on things about our family that stress you out every year. Then, accept that those things are going to happen and accept that they’re going to stress you out.

In the case of the drunken uncle or guilt-inducer, “I maybe need to accept a particular family member’s typical pattern,” Ulven says.

Having done that, look at committing yourself to doing something different this holiday to avoid that source of stress in your life.

“Have a bit of foresight and awareness, and approach this holiday season differently,” he says.

Plugged-in cousins and hipster in-laws

Another source of family frustration can be trying to connect or converse with family members with whom you have very little in common.

Take, for example, that cousin who is too busy tweeting to talk to you or your new hipster in-law that scoffs at every aspect of your life.

If it appears impossible to find anything in common with them, Emmel recommends just giving up. At a certain point, there’s only so much you can do, so why bother?

“If someone absolutely drives you crazy, you may do very well to just be in the same room with them for a few hours and be happy with it,” she says. “You have to give up connecting with some of these people.”

Again, Ulven says, these types of interactions are another part of the holiday that people can commit themselves to look at in a new way this year.

Try interacting with a different family member who has something in common with you instead, he suggests.

“It represents an opportunity for an individual to try and change the pattern with which they engage with their family,” he says.

The unexpected truth bomb

While following Emmel’s and Ulven’s advice can help you deal with the expected sources of anxiety, what happens when the unexpected occurs?

What about those truth bombs that may not affect you personally but can ruin the holidays for everyone else – like when your brother-in-law drunkenly declares love for your cousin’s wife, or when the not-so-planned pregnancy announcement happens over Christmas dinner?

In such situations, Emmel says, you need to recognize when to let go.

“You have to go into the situation thinking that these aren’t your issues,” she says. “All you’re going to do is create more stress if you take it on.”

At some point, she adds, you may just need to remove yourself from a situation altogether.

“You don’t have to do it in a nasty or hurtful way,” she says.

“Just say, ‘Just for my own well-being, I think I need to leave now.’ ”

So whether it’s that unexpected announcement or the same stressful relative as every other holiday, your image of a perfect holiday may fall apart pretty quickly over the next few days.

But as long as you’ve accepted that it’s likely to happen, you can reduce the level of stress you’ll feel when it does, Ulven explains.

Or, as Emmel says, “Put a smile on your face and look at it and say, ‘Isn’t this an interesting family?’ ”


Readers can reach Forum reporter Sam Benshoof at (701) 241-5535

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