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Putting Aside Our Differences at the Holiday Table

“If you think you’re enlightened, go spend a week with your family.” – Ram Dass

The holidays are upon us and the joy of being with our loved ones is flooding us with… dread. Because it’s not always a cakewalk when family gathers. Increasing stress and high expectations create a holiday powder-keg. Add a dash of obstinance, some poor boundaries, a few differences of opinion and the fuse is lit.

So what do we do when the holiday gathering grows argumentative?

The internet is flush with various answers to this question. There are two ends of the spectrum. One is to quiet yourself and make it your job to listen to the other person and truly understand where they are coming from. The other directive is to skip the holidays with your disagreeable family and make a new tradition without them. Some blogs tells you exactly what to say when differences in political and cultural beliefs come up.

It all seems so extreme. Why should the responsibility be on you to “shut up” and listen to the other person without any expectation that they extend the same empathy to you? Communication, like all relationships, is a two-way street.

On the other hand, if you didn’t want to spend the holidays with your family, you wouldn’t be googling “how to avoid arguments with my family.” You know you could cut them off and avoid them like the plague, but who wants to do that? No one wants to be estranged.

And while carefully parsed and informed rebuttals are fascinating, are people really going to memorize these responses like they’re preparing for a televised debate? That puts the burden on you to justify your opinions and beliefs, and research has shown that correcting a person can actually reinforce their current beliefs — it’s called the “backfire effect.” When you begin defending yourself, especially to someone who isn’t really interested in listening to you, it’s the perfect recipe for a circular argument. If you want to stay out of a circular argument don’t JADE — don’t justify, argue, defend or explain yourself repeatedly. State your point of view once and move along.

So what can a person do when the thought of another family argument overshadows an otherwise joyous time of year?

1. Put aside your differences.

Let that be your mantra. Nothing could be more in the spirit of the season than putting aside differences and coming together over our shared humanity.

Don’t be the one bringing up politics or other points of contention. Let someone else do that while you stay on agreeable topics — your Corgi looks adorable in her ugly Christmas sweater and it’s completely undebatable that she’s a good dog.

But this mantra is not just for you — if you’re willing to put aside your differences, they should also be willing to do so. Disagreements are normal. If something comes up say, “Well, I don’t agree with you about that. Maybe we should talk about something we can agree on.” If they persist tell them, “Look, I’d like to put aside our differences in the spirit of the holidays. Can we do that?”

2. Remember you love these people.

Is that obvious? Are you sure you’re not harboring feelings of superiority?

If you didn’t love your family, you wouldn’t spend the holidays with them. Maybe you didn’t pick them, but you love them. They are lovable. And even if you think they are very wrong about some things, you’ve been wrong before, too. You’ve trespassed on others, maybe you were forgiven or maybe not. You’ve had to swallow your pride and accept that you were wrong. You’re not perfect.

Bring your mind to this humble place so you don’t feel so disconnected or alienated from your relatives from the start.

3. Don’t take it personally.

There’s a saying that “Family knows how to push your buttons because they installed the buttons.” Maybe the best antidote for this is “Don’t take anything personally.” It’s one of Don Miguel Ruiz’s Four Agreements because the words and actions of other people say something about them, not you. Even if you’re the subject of their criticism, it’s not about you. It’s about them.

When Aunt Lucy asks, “When are you going to get married?”, it communicates something about her own values, fears, perspective, experience — her reality. You’re getting a glimpse into her internal world, perhaps where never getting married and starting a family is considered the greatest failure in life. This says nothing about you.

As Don Miguel Ruiz says, “When you are immune to the opinions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.”

It’s always the rigid people who make the holidays tough, people who know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the holidays are supposed to be exactly one way — there’s only one way to celebrate, to live, to worship, to vote, to view the world. It’s egoic and close-minded and it bums you out.

So this holiday season, stay open, stay loving, and try not to presume that everything that can go wrong will go wrong.

Putting Aside Our Differences at the Holiday Table

Sarah Newman, MA, MFA

Sarah Newman is the managing editor and associate publisher of PsychCentral and the founding editor-in-chief of the Poydras Review.

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APA Reference
Newman, S. (2018). Putting Aside Our Differences at the Holiday Table. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 26, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 19 Dec 2018 (Originally: 18 Dec 2018)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 19 Dec 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.