Seasonal celebrations can be fraught with tension, as we’re flooded with idealized images of family gatherings that seem so unlike our own. Past issues, too, often come back to haunt the season like uninvited guests. But our expert advice will place forgiveness – a dish best served with a side of empathy and warmth – on the menu.
Take a Deep Breath
Defensiveness is a physiological reaction that makes you tense, puts you on guard and hampers your ability to take in new information, say experts. So before you even sit down at the table with that one family member who has a history of pushing your buttons, breathe.
“When someone approaches us in an angry or critical way, we automatically listen for what we don’t agree with,” says Harriet Lerner, Ph.D., family relationship expert and author of Why Won’t You Apologize? Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts. She says we’re hardwired to immediately go into defensive mode when criticized, but that “becoming aware of our defensiveness can give us a tiny, crucial bit of distance from it.” Taking a few slow, deep breaths – and doing whatever else you can to keep yourself calm – will help.
Listen With an Open Heart
Whatever the source of resentment or anger between you and your relative is, resolution may require a neutral space where you can both safely express your feelings. There are always two sides to every story; it’s important that you share yours. “Even if the other person isn’t able to consider your point of view, you may need to hear the sound of your own voice saying what you really think,” says Lerner.
Timing is everything, so if it means shelving the conversation until after the dinner plates have been cleared, so be it. You’ll want to wait for a moment you feel confident you’ll be heard, Lerner advises. Conversely, if you’re feeling emotionally overwhelmed, you won’t be able to give your full attention to what the other person is saying – and what you need to hear. “Wholehearted listening requires us to quiet our mind, open our heart and ask questions to help us better understand,” says Lerner.
Free Yourself Through Forgiveness
Prior to initiating a difficult discussion, “keep in mind that protecting yourself comes first,” stresses Lerner. “Reduce your expectations to zero for getting the response you want and deserve. Speak your truths… because this is the ground you want to stand on, whatever response you receive.” And remember, the other person’s willingness to own up to how they’ve wronged you has nothing to do with how much they love and care for you, she says. They’re likely working through their own defensiveness and hurt.
Letting go of anger isn’t easy, but the act of forgiving is enormously beneficial to both parties. “Sometimes the process is less about insisting on justice, and more about investing in the relationship,” Lerner asserts. “It’s about allowing yourself to accept the people you love just as they are.”