A version of this article appeared in December 2016.
The holidays can be a time of fun and romance, but it’s no secret that they also create plenty of stress thanks to extra expenses, insensitive family members, and—oh, joy—tension and disagreements about politics, religion, and other loaded topics—especially with this year’s divisive election. But it’s the holidays, and even if you don’t like some of your family right now, you still love them. Plus, skipping out on Hannukah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, New Year’s, or other yearly traditions doesn’t feel like the right thing to do (and for some, like students who don’t have their own homes, it may not even be an option). So, what now?
How can my liberal friend come to terms with her mom voting for a man who disrespects women?
“This specific election was intensely emotional,” says therapist Deborah Sandella, PhD, RN, 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 how is my super-liberal female best friend actually supposed to come to terms with the fact that her mom voted for a man who seems to advocate disrespect for women? They’ll be together over the holidays, and while she’s trying to have empathy for her mom, it’s a little hard right now (understatement). Luckily, Sandella has a few tactics for how to get through the holidays with your family without allowing politics to ruin your relationship.
Even if it feels like your anger or sadness is directly related to your rights being threatened and your fear about the state of the country, there’s often something more personal and psychologically deeper going on, too, says Sandella. We all have wounds from our past that become activated and exposed in indirect ways through controversial or traumatic events. “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.”
The election triggered many people’s deepest emotional issues.
She suggests taking some time to reflect on your most powerful emotions, to let them flow through you and invite an answer to come and give you insight about what else could subconsciously be going on. For instance, does the pain of Clinton’s loss remind you of a time when you went for something you deeply believed in, and didn’t get it? Does the way Trump and his advisors dismiss the importance of consent and women’s rights trigger a memory of a time you were disrespected, harassed, or even assaulted by a man? Yes, some of these issues are symptomatic of a society that needs to heal, you can also take the opportunity to heal yourself. Pour your feelings into a journal or talk to a trusted friend or family member 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.”
Speak Respectfully—Then Listen.
Many people are arguing that it’s more important now than ever to engage in a dialogue with people whose beliefs differ from your own. After all, isn’t that why it was such a shock that our country is so divided—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 conversation to try to understand each other’s point of view. Don’t, however, pick a fight or go into 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.”
Take a Break—and Be Grateful.
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,” or, “Political smoking outside only please.” 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. Your belief is yours and mine is mine. Accepting our differences, let’s appreciate what we share, which is this family,'” suggests 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. “Research shows that awe increases feelings of cooperation and fairness,” says Sandella.
It’s no longer about who’s right; now is the time for compassion and understanding.
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 for 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.