When Conflict Ruins Your Cranberry Sauce

“The planet does not need more successful people. The planet desperately needs more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of all kinds.” ~ Dalai Lama

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! It is time to gather, to eat turkey and stuffing and rolls, time to admire the snow falling, set up the Christmas tree, sing songs, and shop online. Jokes aside, the holiday season is nigh upon us, and it really can be the most wonderful time of the year. If you are one of many individuals who greets the months of November and December with equal parts excitement and trepidation–due to family gatherings–I have just the tips for you. 

Though getting family members and friends together this holiday season may be joyful and rewarding, there also exists the possibility for a healthy dose of awkward moments, conflict, disagreement, and discord. Since you are reading this post on avoiding family drama during the holidays, I dub you a peacemaker. Regardless of whether or not you have been a peacemaker in the past, that of a peacemaker can be your role this holiday season. Here are seven tips to be a peacemaker during your gatherings this holiday season:

  1. Listen. The most glorious and selfless gift you can give your family is your ability to listen. It costs nothing, and provides wonderful feelings for all those who receive it. When a family member is speaking to you, stop what you are doing and listen. Consider that person’s feelings and then validate them. The gift of listening is a powerful and wonderful way of connecting with those you care for.
  2. Be self-aware. You can choose not to be reactive to what you are feeling. Be aware of how you are feeling from moment to moment; recognize if you are tired or anxious or under pressure to get something done. This will help decrease the likelihood of snapping unnecessarily at someone.  Take responsibility for your own behavior. If you make a mistake, apologize and make amends. If someone around you makes a mistake, be quick to forgive and forget.
  3. Count to 20. If you feel angry or upset, remove yourself from the situation for a few moments. Remember that anger is generally triggered by a cascade of events…not just one event. You must break the chain of events to curb your emotional reaction. This is why I recommend stepping out on the balcony and counting to 20.
  4. Acknowledge anger. In the presence of angry or upset people, acknowledge their anger. “Oh, Aunt Martha. I can see that you are upset. I would be upset, too, if that happened to me! What can we do to make things right?” People usually become angry and upset because they feel unacknowledged or disrespected. Simply acknowledging the angry feelings of a family member may work miracles in restoring peace.
  5. Designate off-limit topics. For my family, there are certain things we simply cannot discuss–not during the holidays or ever. We cannot talk politics. We cannot discuss local football rivalries. Sometimes, being a peacemaker will require laying ground rules about what can be discussed. Remind everyone that you are there to enjoy each other’s company and that none of you would want to do (or say) anything to jeopardize that.
  6. Host. If a neutral ground is necessary to have a peaceful family gathering, volunteer your space. Being Switzerland may require a great deal of work, but it will absolutely be worth it if someone who may have been on guard at Gramma’s house can stand down and relax at your’s. Remember, this is to be a holly jolly joyful season! 
  7. If necessary, be a mediator. If individuals start fighting or arguing, intervene quickly. Take one of them away and cool down with them. Acknowledge their feelings and find out what is upsetting them. Offer to mediate both parties. Let them exchange stories one at a time without interruption, explain what injustices they feel, and then ask them for ideas on how to make things right. There–in five minutes, you can be back to Turkey and eggnog, all because you helped each person feel heard.

This all sounds so obvious and common-sensical. Yet we fail to act this way year after year. We have habits of conflict that we carry with us, especially when we are with family or friends who know us best. What we really need are some habits of peace. The quick tips above are some of the habits of an everyday peacemaker. Like any other skill, they will be awkward at first. With a little practice, you will gain confidence that these tips work. Then you will have your habits of peace that you can employ in every season of the year, not just during the holidays.

May you have a beautifully harmonious holiday season as you engage your habits of peace in the company of your loved ones. Happy holidays! 

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

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Keeping the Peace This Holiday Season

Keeping the Peace This Holiday Season - Cluff Counseling - Lewisville Therapist“Nobody’s walking out on this fun, old-fashioned family Christmas. No. No. We’re all in this together.” -Clark Griswold, Christmas Vacation

The holiday season is truly magical. The snow, the lights, the presents, the carolers, the sightings of Santa Claus himself, and the amount of stress that accompanies such a wonderful time of year!  With the holidays come family meals and gatherings, and–for some–this is not all fun and games. Many families have one (or more) individual(s) who consistently manages to say something rude, spark controversy, offend others, arrive late, act inappropriately, etc. While most people are looking forward to decorating gingerbread houses, others are dreading getting around the difficult family member. If you can relate to this struggle with family, read on.

Regardless of how much you love your family, you are bound to run into an uncomfortable, annoying, or tense situation with a family member at some point during the holidays when so many personalities are congregated around the table. Here are four suggestions to keep the peace this holiday season:

Have realistic expectations. While it is good to hope for the best in people, you need to be realistic. If certain individuals have behaved a certain way for years, do not expect them to be any different this Christmas Eve dinner. When your Aunt Bethany makes her usual comment about your outfit or beard, be prepared to brush it off…because you expected it. Having realistic expectations of others will enable you to maintain your cool when they say something unnecessary or offensive. Because you expected it, you can choose to not let it ruin your evening.

Set boundaries.  This one has several parts:

  1. Conversations: Plan to keep conversation conflict-free by avoiding potentially sensitive topics. Politics and religion are go-to topics for immediate controversy, but each family has specific triggers that can (and should) be avoided at happy holiday gatherings. Get everyone to agree that there are topics that simply will not be discussed because they only bring out the worst in everyone. Setting boundaries like this will hopefully keep the conversation from veering into a minefield of divisive issues. I also highly recommend having a pre-rehearsed line or two that you are confident saying if someone is going against set boundaries. Something like, “This is something I would prefer not to discuss right now, it is too heavy and we should be enjoying the party!” or, “I totally understand you feel that way; even though I have a different opinion, I still respect yours.”
  2. Timing: Be firm with what time you are starting and start at that time. Let everyone know if they are late, dinner and/or the activity will still start on time. There are some people who may consistently late in order to make dramatic entrances, be the focus of attention, and to demonstrate dominance or control. Do not give them that opportunity!
  3. Activities: If a certain game or activity sparks contention, rule it out. I have friends who have decided they simply cannot play basketball on opposing teams because it inevitably gets too competitive and contention ensues. Or maybe for your family it is UNO. Just be sure to avoid activities that do not unite or uplift your family. Also, be sure to avoid excessive alcohol consumption during the festivities; it does not bring out the best in anyone!

Use humor. Everyone has a button that can be pushed to the point of irritation. Whether it is political views, a rough patch at work, a nonexistent dating life, or a slew of other possibilities, no one knows said buttons better than family members. The best way to deflect intentional jabs is with a witty comment. If you take everything seriously or personally, you likely will not even be able to make it through the appetizers and drinks before the holiday dinner is ruined!

Control yourself. At the end of the day, you cannot control your sister, your mother, or your Cousin Eddie. The only thing you can control is yourself. Accept that. You are in control of your reaction, your mood, and your responses. If you have tried all of the above suggestion AND people show up late, engage in controversial topics, or be outright rude, remember that you are in control of YOU. Monitor yourself; if you find you are getting worked up or irritated, physically remove yourself from a conversation, room, or group of people. Take deep breaths. Get active and play a game; it is difficult to be drawn into an argument when engrossed in an activity that requires concentration, physical activity or laughter. Be grateful; think about what you are grateful for to minimize frustrations. Practice tolerance; remember that even you have offended someone in the past. Lastly, forgive your family for not being perfect and for detracting from the festivities and move on.

The holidays come but once a year. Soak these last weeks of 2018 in and do not let any social toxicity get in the way of the holiday cheer. I can assure you that, as you go into your family gatherings having prepared yourself with realistic expectations and set boundaries, you will be able to to control yourself by using humor and monitoring yourself. These are simple, yet powerful suggestions that will equip you with the tools you need to enjoy any family gathering this holiday season. Should you have questions or find you need additional guidance or assistance, please do not hesitate to contact me or schedule a session.

Wishing you and yours the happiest of holidays!

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

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Making Room for Grief During the Holidays

This topic of grief and/or loneliness always seems to be increasingly relevant for many during the holiday season. In this post I will focus on these feelings, and how to let your grief have a healthy place in your life“Grief is two parts: The first is loss. The second is the remaking of life.” -Anne Roiphe

Last month I wrote about what I referred to as the “trauma of surviving”–or learning to live life after losing someone dear to you. Such loss may be due to divorce, a move, death, or any other change that results in a separation from loved ones. This topic of grief and/or loneliness always seems to be increasingly relevant for many during the holiday season. In this post I will focus on these feelings, and how to let your grief have a healthy place in your life.

A friend of mine recently told me about a movie on Netflix called the Babadook. A widowed mother is plagued by the death of her husband and simultaneously battles with her son’s fear of a monster lurking in the house. Although this is supposed to be a scary movie, the ending is applicable and relatable to the topic at hand. As the mother in the film avoids facing the reality of her husband’s death, the presence of the monster grows, and the complications in her life amount. In the end we see the mother well put-together and clearly in a different, more positive state as she takes food down to the “monster” that has been banished to live in the basement.  She is feeding or acknowledging the monster–or her grief–and by so doing, it is appeased. It stops tormenting her. Its malevolent presence diminishes and she is able to figure out how to live a balanced, happy life even after the loss of her husband. She lets grief have a place in her life.

While I have not personally seen this movie, I love the parallels that can be made between the monster and grief. Avoiding grief and acting like it is not there can wreak havoc on our life. It can and will weaken us and our important relationships. We must first, acknowledge it and second, work through it.

Acknowledge it.

The “monster” in the Babadook terrorizes the mother right up until the end of the film. She struggles sleeping, maintaining friendships, holding a job, and even keeping the basic elements of her life together. In the same way, grief can eat away at you if it is given the chance. A person who is dealing with grief will most likely display some of the following emotional symptoms: Increased irritability, numbness, bitterness, detachment, preoccupation with loss, and inability to show or experience joy. While these emotional symptoms are normal in the days and weeks after a traumatic event, they can be indicators of a more serious disorder if they do not fade over time.

Grief is unavoidable after loss; the only way to overcome it is to give it place in your life–face it. Popular blogger Emily Meyers, a young mother of five, lost her husband to cancer and was left to care for their children on her own. She wrote a beautiful post about grief, and I have found great truth in these words:

“There is no ‘other side’ of grief. It’s never going to pass. You don’t ever ‘move on’ from it. You just learn to live with it. You absorb it. It becomes part of you. You simply adjust and change. You slowly but surely find how to navigate through your new normal with it. It doesn’t get easier, you just get stronger. I’ll say that again: It doesn’t get easier, you just get stronger. You stop waiting for the storm to pass, and instead, learn to dance in the rain.”

I have some clients who, like the mother in Babadook, try to simply ignore their grief and “move on” without facing it. But again, just as the mother in Babadook, this does not and cannot work. As Emily Meyers said, you cannot simply move on. You must learn to live with your grief.  You must acknowledge it. Do not expect to move on from a life-altering loss without allowing yourself to bereave or grieve. Yes, I am telling you to be sad–it is okay!

Work through it.

The loss of anything important to you–a relationship, a job, an opportunity, a loved one– can cause feelings of profound grief. Sadness around the holidays–or any time of year–is okay. It is perfectly understandable and 100% normal to feel like you are not “over” your loss. What is important is what you do with your sadness. Acknowledging it is the first step, and once you have done this, you will need to work through your grief and process your emotions. For some, this may mean crying, writing in a journal, participating in a therapeutic hobby or activity (like exercise), talking with a friend, or counseling with an experienced, licensed therapist. The most important thing is that you take the time to work through your difficult emotions because they do not go away on their own. In my experience, I have seen that simply burying or ignoring grief only exacerbates the problem when it actually does surface. And it is sure to!

If the holidays highlight your loneliness or the absence of a loved one, this time of year can be especially difficult. Many of my clients find themselves in a slump around the Christmas season, and struggle to find something to celebrate. My heart aches for those who are grieving this year. I advise you to take my counsel to heart and acknowledge, then work through your grief. I know that by so doing you will find a place for your grief and will then be able to find a healthy balance of grieving and living life to the fullest. And, as always, if you need help facing or working through your grief, please do not hesitate to contact me today or schedule a session.

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

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Image by Freepic.diller

You Are Blessed: A Simple Gratitude Challenge

Simple Gratitude Challenge - Cluff Counseling, Lewisville Therapist“Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.” ~ Melody Beattie

This is the season we always hear and talk about “blessings” and “thankfulness.” What does that even mean? Let’s start by defining gratitude. Gratitude is an emotion expressing appreciation for what one has—as opposed to thinking only about what one wants or needs. Studies show that we can deliberately cultivate gratitude by simply counting our blessings and expressing gratitude through words, lists, or written letters of thanks. When gratitude comes from deep within us and is meaningful, it is a proactive acknowledgement that can increase our overall well-being, health, and happiness. Being grateful—and especially expressing it—is also associated with increased energy, optimism, and empathy.

We could all use these benefits in our life!  This is why I have put together and am sharing a little activity that I did recently. It really is not difficult to sit down and think of a few things we are grateful for. No matter what each of us have been through, we have things to be thankful for!

If I were to tell you to take a paper and number 1-100 and and write 100 things you are grateful for, it might take you a little while and seem slightly overwhelming… Instead, I have a challenge that will make you think about specific things, people, places, and experiences for which you are profoundly grateful. Let’s get started.

What I want you to do is take a paper and number it one through ten, ten times, leaving a space in between each grouping. Then, insert the following topics in the space you left, as headings:

  1. Write 10 physical abilities you are grateful for.
  2. Write 10 material possessions you are grateful for.
  3. Write 10 people (living or dead) you are grateful for.
  4. Write 10 smells and sounds you are grateful for.
  5. Write 10 things about nature you are grateful for.
  6. Write 10 things about today you are grateful for.
  7. Write 10 places on earth you are grateful for.
  8. Write 10 modern inventions you are grateful for.
  9. Write 10 foods you are grateful for.
  10. Write 10 life experiences you’ve had that you are grateful for.

This gratitude challenge is the perfect introduction into Thanksgiving, and will surely help us keep a positive perspective and a grateful heart. The hustle and bustle of the holiday season can often get us feeling discouraged or less-than. Instead, let’s acknowledge and enjoy the beautiful blessings that surrounds us. This activity has helped me remember how much I have to be grateful for.  I know that when you do this challenge, you will feel grateful, too! Make time today for this activity!

Please feel free to reach out with questions, concerns, or to schedule a session. The holiday season is busy for everyone, but it is also a great time to get the help you need!

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

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