The rest of us struggle with family. We are adults, lead responsible lives, no longer have the bad habits of younger years. But something triggers five-year old behavior. Someone’s a bully. Someone gets teased. One person is nosy, someone else doesn’t care to ask enough questions. Many are “offended” at an opinion, the food, the word in a song. Instead of “merry and bright,” you get “fury and fight.”
Why does this happen when absolutely no one wants it to happen? Because Christmas is fraught with the freight of memories. We take the gauzy, vague memories of childhood and make them solid. We had perfect trees and handmade, heirloom ornaments. The treats were perfect and the food exquisite. It wasn’t of course, but our brain steps in, says, “let me remember that differently for you.” Your perfect childhood is endlessly trying to be created, not re-created. You struggle to create today the fantasy that never was in your childhood. Trouble erupts when your definition of “perfect” is not the same as the other people’s. Tension blossoms, followed by a power struggle. Everyone loses.
As adults, we have a firm vision of who we are now. In control. In control of how we want people to think of us. Your siblings remember foibles and habits we’dlike to forget. They bring them up anyway. You collapse. You realize just how many buttons you have that get pushed. In fact, you are just one big button standing next to the Christmas tree.
Shift your perspective just a bit. Instead of thinking of yourself as the noble, wounded bull in the bullfight, remember that the bull inevitably gets stabbed by the bullfighter (to wild applause). Update that image. You are the bull—but strong, nimble, powerful. Not wounded, but angry. The matador is the thoughtless sibling, aunt, cousin. Decked out in a too-tight suit of lights, [the link description is worth reading, just for the unfortunate translation], complete with the little goofy hat, pink hose, sequined pants and . . . your emotional baggage instead of a cape.
Here’s the trick: stop looking at the red cape/baggage the matador wiggles at you. There is a sword in there. Look at your matador–the sparkly sequins, the tight pants. There’s your target. Can’t run fast in that getup. You are a lot more powerful. But only if you ignore the taunts and flapping red attention-distracting flag. If you charge the flag, you will be jeered. Swords will appear. If you gore the bullfighter, you will hate yourself later. And you’ll be stabbed. People will cheer. Not the result you want.
Here’s the move: Ignore the baggage. Do not attack the attention-grabbing baggage. Once you charge, there is a feint, the distraction moves, and the matador is engaged. Instead, listen to what the matador is goading you with. Listen, not to charge headlong into the red, but to hear a keyword you can acknowledge. This move catches the matador off guard.
Aunty Annoying: Are you still at that dead-end job? I don’t understand why you didn’t become an engineer like your brother.
You: [respond to key word, “engineer”] Yes, [brother’s name] is very successful. We are all proud of him. [If you can’t manage that, you can substitute, “You must be so proud of him. “]
Aunty Annoying: We’d like to be proud of you, too, but it’s hard to be proud of someone who claims to be an artist.
You: [respond to key word “artist.”] Art isn’t valued by our culture, is it? [Notice that you are not chasing the red flag here]
Aunt Annoying: No, who cares about art? Why did you disappoint us all anyway?
You: [changing subject] What did you want to be when you were little, Aunt Annoying?
Aunt Annoying: I didn’t have choices like you kids today do. I stayed home and raised the children. Which reminds me, when are you going to give my sister a grandchild?
You: [responding to keyword “grandchild”] Speaking of grandchildren, how is your grandson Iggy doing?
Notice that this is not a conversation. This is you, avoiding charging the ancient painful baggage being dangled in front of you. You are not looking for conversation, you are avoiding a tearful confrontation. You are listening, not to correct her, make her wrong, express your frustration, but to keep coming back to her, instead of the red cape.
Keep your eye on the real target–the matador. Do not resort to the clever, snarky verbal slap that will put the questioner down, hard. (It will attract the attention of the bully protector.) Feel sorry (if your can’t muster compassionate) at the inability of the matador to manage a good relationship. Focus on acknowledging the life of the questioner. Turn the conversation to neutral ground or to questions about the matador. Not mean questions, neutral. Within 20 minutes, you will be behaving like the in-control adult you are.
Then take a lap around the ring, still standing, still strong, still powerful. Stand among your peaceful family. You’ve earned it.
—Quinn McDonald has been the matador and the bull. This year, she’s avoiding being the red baggage.