by Jane Benjamin, Ph.D.
Many people experience some degree of anxiety, sadness, wariness, and dread when anticipating having to manage adult relationships over the holiday dinner table. Will there be tension? Will everyone behave themselves? Will Aunt X or Uncle Y drink too much and end up maudlin or combative? Young adults headed home to their families of origin often fear being pulled back into old family dynamics, of reverting to the patterns of behavior and emotion that in one form or another define all family relationships. And then there are the mundane worries: Will the food come out well? Will the weather cooperate? Will everyone travel safely?
In recent years, an additional factor has intensified the built-in stress of holiday meals: The country’s widespread political acrimony now seems more pronounced than most of us have seen in our lifetimes. Some families are lucky enough to all fall on the same side of the political divide, but more often than not, holiday gatherings are comprised of people with a range of political views. So how best to deal with the possibility that conversations may turn political and contentious, and spin out of control?
In most cases, we know before we sit down to a holiday dinner that we will not see eye to eye with certain people at the table. Only rarely do our differences first come to light over hors d’oeuvres or dessert. Nonetheless, we often act surprised, even outraged, when disagreements arise. Why? Human beings have a natural desire to feel part of a unified clan…. a family that shares similar beliefs, moral values and a view of the world. A biological imperative underlies our desire for family members, on whom we often depend to help fulfill essential needs, to think and feel like we do in fundamental ways. The need to belong is so powerful that encountering vast differences between our beliefs and those of other family members can produce an uncomfortable cognitive dissonance. Disagreeing with a family member feels much more upsetting, and has the potential to create more emotional volatility, than disagreeing with a random person. The holiday table becomes a highly combustible place.
If a political discussion does arise, it’s important to ask yourself, “What is my goal in debating?” Are you actually curious about what the other person thinks about a particular subject? Do you want to understand the other person’s point of view? If the answer is “no,” then how do you expect the discussion to unfold? Will it inevitably become one of the butting heads? Perhaps in these instances, it’s best to avoid political topics altogether.
It’s also important to ask yourself if you truly expect to change someone’s mind. Such an agenda often leads to each side digging into a position while emotions escalate. Adrenaline surges, tempers flare and angry exchanges flow. It’s important to remember that once the nervous system is sufficiently over-stimulated or flooded, a fight or flight response kicks in, creating a desire to attack or run. Things are said and later regretted. This heated state often leads people to move from criticizing the other person’s ideas to denigrating his or her character. We say things like: “Only an idiot would believe that.” “That’s what racists say.” “I don’t know how you can be this ignorant,” etc. The possibility of constructive dialogue is lost.
So if you feel yourself heating up, it’s best to pause and deescalate. A number of small, fairly invisible practices can calm your nervous system while you remain in the social situation. You can take a moment of “mindfulness,” in which you shift your attention away from the conversation and focus on noticing how you feel…. are you tense? Are your toes curled? Are your shoulders up around your ears? Notice the chair under you, your feet flat on the floor, your spine against the seatback. Simply bringing attention to the body in this way will be instantly calming.
Some invisible isometric exercises can also help calm the nervous system: Push your hands together, or push down on your chair. Clench your teeth and then relax your jaw. Press your feet into the floor and then release. And most importantly breathe…. full, deep breaths.
Deescalating tense, vitriolic conversations is not easy, particularly when they involve someone you care about, someone you love. Finding the strength to manage conflicts and preserve relationships with family members can be a struggle. In these instances, it’s essential to engage not just your mind, but also your heart. Tapping into the affection you feel for the person, despite your opposing viewpoints, is an excellent way to cool a heated argument. Remember the ways in which you do feel connected to this person, the qualities you appreciate, the areas where you find common ground, the history you share. Re-engaging with your heart can help to infuse any conversation with the warmth and good will that we all hope to feel during the holiday season