M.J. Ryan
September 09, 2001

There we were at the kitchen table preparing Thanksgiving dinner when my mother dropped the bomb: “You know,” she confided, “youre not going to keep getting speaking engagements if you dont get a face-lift. No one wants to hire a saggy face.”

Ouch! Just another example of how families and holidays are a deadly combination. Whether its a competitive sister who must bake a better pie than anyone else, the aunt who thinks your 3-year-old should have better table manners, or an overly critical mother, one of the greatest holiday stresses is keeping the peace with those we are supposed to love the most.

In my case, Mom has been trying to get me to have cosmetic surgery since I was 7—she thought my ears stuck out too far. But because shes done this before, I come prepared. And you can too. First, decide what you really want: peace or “justice.” If you truly want peace, you can make it. Next, think in advance about how you are going to respond to relatives who push your buttons. I like to think of these people as fishermen. Theyre throwing out a line in hopes of hooking you. Your task is not to take the bait.

I have two favorite responses when a hook is out. The first is, “Thanks for your opinion,” followed by a friendly subject change: “How about those candied yams?” Its OK to allow yourself an inner eye roll, but with this reply you acknowledge that you got the message and signal that the subject is closed.

The second response recognizes that the hook is really a desire to express caring, even though it doesnt feel so good to you. In those circumstances, I say, as warmly as possible, “Thanks for caring about me.” Then I change the subject. Thats exactly what I did in response to my mothers comment about the face-lift. And because I responded to her emotional intention—her love for me—she felt heard. We avoided any unpleasantness, and she hasnt raised the topic since.

In the heat of the moment, it can be hard not to take the bait. But if your desire to keep the peace stays front and center, happy holidays can be more than just a saying.

What if you need to fight back?
1. Look ahead. Often, people end up fighting over the past: “Then you said this.” “No, youre the one who promised to …” The truth is, each person has his or her own version of reality. Rehashing the past is an absolute waste of breath. When this occurs, its useful to say something like, “Lets not look backward. We may never agree on what happened. Whats important is were here now together.”

2. Say, “Ouch.” If you just cant stop yourself from replying to relatives who hurt you with snide comments, try saying, “Ouch” before changing the subject. Its remarkably effective in conveying to others that youve been hurt without having to justify yourself. The other person may not admit she caused any pain. But, if nothing else, youve recognized that it stings. And that helps take the sting away.

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