Instead of avoiding the holiday gathering that includes people you despise you can choose to attend the gathering and use it as an opportunity to practice philosophical and emotional tolerance. When we avoid people we find disagreeable we are holding and strengthening rigid and extreme attitudes that people have to be a particular way. It is a position of intolerance. Unfortunately, we are creatures of habit and it is better to cultivate the capacity to tolerate people instead of having to avoid them to save our sanity. It is a slippery slope when we cut people out of our lives. We cut this person out for one “good” reason and then we find a different so called “good” reason to cut a different person out of our lives. So rather than changing your rigid and extreme attitudes of how others “absolutely must or must not be” you simple avoid exposing yourself to those people you simply “cannot stand and who push my buttons.” My view is that if you have an inclination to cut someone out of your life it may very well be as much your vulnerability to disturbing yourself and inclination towards intolerance that makes this necessary as it is about what the other person is actually doing to you.
It is undoubtedly true that family members will sometimes treat each other poorly. Family members will disrespect each other, not listen to each other, and display all sorts of negative behavior towards one another. Family members will hold different political opinions and condescendingly convey that their opinion is right and yours is completely wrong. I think that people hold biases in their favor and tend to observe the source of the problem as residing outside of them. Nevertheless, I see tolerating family as the better option nearly all of the time. There may be a few instances when it is best to not have contact with particular family members as in the case where one family member is physically or sexually abusive. Another case might be when one family member has a significant substance abuse problem. Under these conditions it may very well be quite sensible not to expose yourself to a particular person because that person may very well be so challenging to be around your avoidance is a reasonable solution.
Putting examples like those aside, I think it is good for you to enhance your ability for tolerating family who act in ways you dislike or despise. If you enhance your defenses you may be able to enjoy to some extent the people who you grew up with or inherited through marriage and may learn something from being in their presence. You may use being around your in-laws as an opportunity to cultivate tolerance that will also serve you well in the workplace, with your neighbors and in all other settings where you are not in complete control of the people you encounter and cannot avoid. Another benefit you may derive is that you maintain a relationship with family who may one day be helpful to you in some unforeseen ways. Life is very strange and you never know what is around the bend. There may come a set of circumstances that the person you despise may be in a position to support you in your hour of need. By being capable of tolerance you also do not put your father or mother or spouse in the difficult position of choosing between you and the other person. Most importantly you model for your children tolerance and emotional control and the ability to get along with other people especially people who you most dislike. Our children watch our behavior and by remaining in control of your emotions when dealing with people you do not like you are providing an incredibly important lesson to your children. You are teaching and modeling for your children REBT’s Principle of Emotional Responsibility and showing them that a person does not have to feel hurt, dysfunctional anger, or anxiety when dealing with relatives and in-laws that say and do things we do not like. The question is how does one actually do this when it comes to family members who you find irksome, annoying, or downright dislikable?
The first step is to see that you always have an emotional choice when relating to family members. Embrace REBT’s Principle of Emotional Responsibility and own your contribution to the dysfunctional emotional upset you may feel in their company. See that you likely hold rigid and extreme attitudes towards these family members. Look for the “absolute should” and “absolute should not” rigid attitudes that make you prone to dysfunctional anger and hurt. Also look for how you may very well rate your family member as a whole person when that person acts in distasteful ways. When we anger ourselves about others we often not only see the other person as violating some absolute rule but we also tend to judge them as bad, nasty, stupid people. They may do bad, nasty, and stupid things but they are people who are evolving and complex. They possess many characteristics. You are likely to be blinded by your anger and unable to objectively see all of their many characteristics. Your anger and condemnation of them as people prevents you from seeing the good, neutral, and the bad characteristics that make them a complex human that is in a constant state of flux.
It is also very important that you take your ego out of your interactions with these family members. They may say something critical about you, your children, your spouse or they may imply they, their children or their spouse are better than you but you do not have to take them too seriously nor take what they say about you too seriously. Remember the old saying “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me”. You may use relating to them as an opportunity to practice what author and philosopher Bill Irvine calls being an Insult Pacifist. (Click here for a link to a review of his book A Slap in the Face and a brief explanation of his approach to insults.) When they put you down, either directly or indirectly, you can easily choose to shrug their comments off and not reinforce their childish, neurotic behavior. You may be a target of an insult but only you can allow the insult to occur by holding a rigid attitude towards how the other individual must or must not act towards you. You can also defuse their attempt at insulting you by agreeing and adding to it. So if a brother or sister implies you did something that was foolish or stupid you may reply with a self-depreciating and humorous remark and say “Yes and you don’t know the many other things I do in private. I really could be the poster child for a campaign to eradicate ridiculous behavior in adults.” By not taking yourself too seriously you communicate several things to the potential hurler of insults. You communicate that you are impervious to their insult because you do not have to prove your worth to others. You communicate that you do not need their approval. You communicate you accept yourself whether you are performing well or poorly and whether they value or approve of you, your achievements or your values. You communicate unconditional self-acceptance and that you have the capacity to laugh at your own silly deeds.
I think it is very sad and self-defeating when family members cannot tolerate each other’s company a few times each year. There is no rule of the universes that says we must like our family members, or that we must get along with them, or even spend holidays with them. However, it is a very useful exercise in unconditional self-acceptance and unconditional other-acceptance when we tolerate family and accept both ourselves and others warts and all. Happy Thanksgiving!
Rehearse this rational attitude: Only I can make myself upset. Only I can put myself down. Only I can allow an opinion held by another person to hurt or anger me. I have choice. I can choose to control my emotions even when others disrespect me or my family. I will expect at some point today someone will say or do something I very much dislike. At that tempting moment I vow to turn my attention to me and control my attitude towards that person and what they have said, instead of trying to change or control that person. My attitudes determine my serenity and are completely under my control.