Getting through family gatherings at Christmas

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Getting through family gatherings at Christmas

If you’re planning to go to a family or friend’s Christmas function … and the thought fills you with fear, then it’s worth doing some planning in advance.

One of the issues many people bring up is those awkward questions or critical comments that can come from friends and family.

So, if you really want or need to go to these events, why not spend a little bit of time thinking about your responses in advance?


What to say when people ask awkward questions


What have you done with yourself this year?
What do you do?
Do you have a job yet?
Do you have a partner?
Where are you living?

When I was on the pension and struggling with my mental health, I sometimes found these questions really hard.

I felt ashamed to tell people that I had been working on my recovery during the year. I worried they’d either think I was ‘a dole bludger’, or be scared because I was talking about mental illness. Then I began to realize that I was sick of all the stigma and bad attitudes. After all, I was probably working harder than most people with 9 to 5 jobs. There are heaps of us who ‘do it tough’, and do you know what? Working on your recovery or wellbeing is one of the hardest jobs there is, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. So these days I never hide the truth about my experiences.

Of course there are lots of personal factors to consider before you decide to disclose, but please don’t ever feel ashamed to do so. You may be surprised to find out that your recovery experiences are a lot more interesting than ‘Uncle Henry’s year in accounting’!

Dealing with Critical Relatives

Some of us are ‘blessed’ with relatives who seem to specialise in comments or questions that hurt – whether it’s unintentional or not.

If you have relatives who are particularly hurtful, then staying away from them is probably a good idea. Unfortunately that can be hard to do, especially if the loving relatives and the hurtful relatives are all at the same gathering. And sometimes family criticism is misplaced ignorance rather than intentionally cruel.

If you’re wary of hurtful comments or criticism at a family gathering, then it’s worth thinking about some ways to respond in advance.

Think about this hurtful question, for example: Have you put on more weight?

There are different ways to react to this kind of thing, depending on your relationship with the person, and the message you want to give them. Here’s some ideas…

  • The ‘switch-it-to-a-compliment’ response: Yes, I have! Thanks for noticing, I think I look so much better too!
  • The assertive response: Yes I have, and it’s quite upsetting for me, actually. Can we please talk about something else?
  • The ‘don’t-engage/escape-fast’ response: Sorry Aunt Hilda, you’ll have to excuse me for a minute. (then just walk away to another room, quickly!)
  • The ‘turn-it-around-on-them’ response: I have actually. Looks like we both had a few too many cakes this year!
  • The ‘confront-em-with-the-facts-anti-stigma’ response: Yes, I have put on weight. 21 kilos, actually. It’s a side effect of my psychiatric medication, and it makes me quite angry. Would you like to know some more about what it’s like to be on antipsychotic medication?
  • The ‘confuse-the-heck-out-of-em’ response: Not at all. Actually I’m about 15 kilos lighter than the last time you saw me.

Whatever the difficult questions or comments might be, there are any different ways to react. Pre-thinking won’t make their comments feel any less hurtful, but you may feel like you have a little more control in the situation.

Giving Yourself a Break

Sometimes it can be helpful to give yourself a break during difficult family gatherings. Here’s a few of my ideas, but I’m sure there are many more options …

  • Excuse myself from time to time. You don’t need to give a reason. Then go for a walk around the block, or have a nice long rest in the toilet.
  • Find an ally. Look for someone who is sitting alone, or someone who smiles at me. Even better if it’s a small child. Hang with them!

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