How to use positivity to transform difficult holiday celebrations

The holidays can be tough. Sure, there’s pie and presents and fa la la la la, la la la la. But there are also difficult family dynamics, often left over from years gone by. Those dynamics can lead to upsetting conversations (and on the heels of an vitriolic election season, politics might put extra strain on your relationships). Sometimes, it might even feel like your whole family tripped head-over-heels into a time-traveling vortex as everyone slips into familiar roles: the overbearing parent, the constant screw-up, or the goody-two-shoes, to name a few.

But wait — don’t reach for that third glass of spiked eggnog just yet. There’s hope for this year.

Changing the pattern of negative holiday dynamics can be as simple as changing the story you’re telling yourself. This year, pay attention to the narrative that’s unfolding in your head as you gear up for the holidays. It might sound a little like this:

“Everyone is going to treat me like a screw-up.”
“Somebody is bound to get mad and storm out.”
“They don’t understand who I am or what my life is like.”
“Dad is going to lecture about politics all weekend.”

If that sounds like you, you’re not alone. Expecting the worst is a natural way of protecting yourself: it feels safer to imagine that someone will hurt you than to hope that they won’t and then feel embarrassed if you end up being wrong. And so, we paint vivid pictures of what others are thinking, and we imagine all the ways things might go wrong. But those pictures are rooted in the assumptions that people haven’t changed and that they don’t want the same things we want. What if you’re wrong?

The real problem with those assumptions is that they have power — over you. We usually change our behavior to match our expectations, so pessimistic assumptions might actually make you behave negatively. Grandma hasn’t actually slighted you with a comment about how young people today are sooo entitled, and your super-together cousin hasn’t said one word about her big promotion at work or her monthlong yoga retreat in Costa Rica. But if you have those scenarios on your mind and are braced for the worst, chances are you’re feeling defensive and putting out some negative energy — and you’ll probably miss opportunities to create a positive experience.

So, what should you do?

Defuse difficult situations by imagining the best.

  1. Get it off your chest: Write down the negative story in your head. Write about what you think others will think or say or do and how your holiday get-together will go. Write about why it will be hard, how it will go wrong, and why it will make you feel bad.
  2. Now imagine the best: Write down a few positive versions of the same story. Write about what positive things your family members might say, think or do, and how they might surprise you. Think big: If this turned out to be the best holiday season of your life, what would that look like?


Now it’s time to review what you’ve written. Recognize that the negative scenarios you’ve created are based on assumptions and fears. Sure, they’re possible. But good things are possible, too — just as possible as negative outcomes. Why not give family the benefit of the doubt this year, just as you would a new acquaintance? If you commit to positivity and keep an optimistic outlook, you just might inspire others to do the same.

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This approach to defusing difficult conversations was originally developed by Adam Schorr for Leadfully as a way to prepare for difficult conversations in the workplace.

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