No matter what your plans look like this year, if you’re planning to see any friends or family members, some things will probably feel familiar: holiday movie marathons, plenty of delicious food, and, if you and your loved ones have different political views, arguments. If you’re seeing friends or family with different views, don’t go in unprepared. We turned to experts for their best advice on how to handle the holiday season if political disagreements are as much of a tradition as trimming the tree or carving the turkey. Read on for everything you need to know to make it through as unscathed as possible.
1. Prepare in advance
You don’t want to go into this situation entirely unprepared. “Acknowledge that you have differing views and try to come up with a game plan for the holidays together,” explained Heidi McBain, MA, LMFT, LPC, PMH-C, a licensed marriage and family therapist. “Maybe you all decide to not discuss politics at all or maybe you put safety measures in place, like using active listening skills and ending the discussion if things get too heated.”
Setting boundaries together ahead of time (if possible) may help ensure that both sides are on the same page and you have a game plan. If even the idea of this kind of conversation makes you feel stressed or nervous, getting help working through those feelings might be a good idea. “If you’re feeling a lot of anxiety about seeing family and friends during these hard times, reach out to a counselor for help working through them,” McBain said.
2. Don’t shy away from conversations
It can be a little nerve-wracking to begin these conversations about how their stance affects you or why you disagree, but don’t feel like you need to avoid the hard conversations altogether. In an article she wrote for The Everymom, contributing editor Reshmi Hazra Rustebakke gave some advice on how to talk to your family about race that can help you figure out how to approach difficult conversations.
First, make sure that you’re calm instead of defensive. It’s tempting to react after someone says something, but a calmer response can help the conversation be more productive. Make sure to ask the other person questions instead of doing all the talking yourself. Saying statements instead of asking questions can make them feel like you’re attacking them, which can cause them to shut down or tune you out. Also, be prepared with facts so that you can respond with information instead of just emotion. Knowing when to end the conversation is also important.
3. Make sure you’re being kind to yourself
Your family or friends may never agree with you 100% (or even be willing to keep an open mind during any discussions), and them being unable or unwilling to even validate how you’re feeling can be really difficult. “Jot down or keep in your phone a few phrases that make you feel affirmed and validate your emotions,” recommended Dr. Rebekah Montgomery, PhD, a psychologist specializing in both individual and couple’s therapy. “Of course you might feel upset, disappointed, or angry. Politics are emotional and personal, which is also why your friends or family are so reactive too. Practice self-validation to help you let go of needing it from your family.”
4. Set your boundaries and stick to them
Whether you set the boundaries verbally with your loved ones or keep them internal, make sure you have some sort of guideline. Know when you’re going to walk away or what subjects you’re unwilling to talk about. Setting boundaries is one of the most important acts of self-care. “Decide in advance how much you are willing to engage in political conversation and what you will do when you want to disengage from the topic,” suggested Tracy K. Ross, LCSW, a couples and family therapist. “There is often a fine line between stimulating and engaging conversation and feelings of alienation and anger that can easily lead to tension and heated arguing. Boundaries create freedom—if you know it will be respectful and won’t devolve into animosity, there is a greater chance for a productive conversation.”
5. Set an intention for family time
Going into holiday events and family time with an intention can help you remember what your priorities are. “Have a few goals that guide you throughout the event. When you get distracted, upset, or burned out, use your intention to guide you to how you want to respond or spend your time,” Montgomery said. “Your intention could be to connect, make memories, relax, or enjoy the present moment.” Your intentions may even help you break through the heat of the moment or temporarily end a conversation that’s no longer productive. After all, the purpose of the holidays is not to prove you’re right, win an argument, or change someone else’s opinion. The purpose is just to enjoy yourself.
6. Set a time limit
Time limits mean that you’ll be able to have an out if you need one. “It’s helpful to make a commitment to yourself to either disengage from political discussions, give yourself a time limit, or have a set of boundary-setting phrases (like ‘I would rather not talk about this so we can enjoy our time together’),” Montgomery said. Time limits can be a good way to navigate a productive conversation from a disagreement that will ruin your time together. For example, if five minutes feels OK to have an open, intellectual conversation, change the subject to something more neutral after five minutes to ensure the conversation doesn’t spiral.
7. Disengage when needed
Taking care of yourself—especially if you’re personally harmed by the views and policies that your loved ones support—is most important. Spending the whole holiday expending mental, emotional, and physical energy is going to take a toll on you. “Schedule time alone or to connect with your support system outside of who you’re spending time with,” Montgomery advised. “Take breaks to care for yourself, seek support from like-minded friends or family members, get outside, be active, and meditate. Have a list of activities (either on your own or with your family) that make the holidays enjoyable for you. Perhaps there are old traditions, meals, movies, games, activities, and rituals, or maybe you want to create some new rituals.”