Turn the Family Courtroom Back Into a Dining Room

Who can resist the lure of the holidays? They are times filled with good food, and spent surrounded by the love and joy of our families.  For some, the opportunity to spend time with parents, grandparents, siblings, and distant cousins defines what Thanksgiving, Chanukah and Christmas are all about.   We imagine a delicious meal, thoughtful conversations, and supportive interactions.  We visualize Norman Rockwell’s view of Thanksgiving or fantasize about being with the Waltons at Christmas.

For others, the thought of spending part of the holidays with kinfolk equals the prospect of getting a root canal.  A family gathering means withstanding Aunt Gertrude’s comments about your hair color, your sister-in-law’s observations about your weight, and your brother’s attempt to goad you into an argument about politics.  Family gatherings like these steer away from the Normal Rockwell view of life and feel more like an episode of Perry Mason or 12 Angry Men.

Before you go over the river, through the woods, and into the airport security lines, and before you face inclement weather and airport delays just to walk into your own personal version of the Family Courthouse, consider these tips to turn the courtroom back into the dining room.

Excuse Yourself from the Jury

Some people escape the content of their own lives by obsessing about others.  I always bring to mind the words of Byron Katie’s thoughts on business: “There are three kinds of business: yours, theirs and God’s.”  What other people think of us is their business. There is nothing we can do to change others.  The only control we have is to make decisions for ourselves:  that’s our business and no one else’s.  People will talk about you and may even say nasty things about you.  They will comment on your clothes, your weight, your choice of friends or love interest.  They will judge you, because they are too afraid to look within themselves.  Release the worry of their business. Create your own rules and cultivate a life of your choosing. Remember that you are the only one who lives inside your skin, lives your daily life, and faces yourself in the mirror each day.  If you are living true to what is best for you, then that’s all that matters.

You Are Not a Member of the Bar Association

If you find yourself mentally picking apart another’s words, just waiting for the chance to cross-examine them, STOP.  Now, ask whose business you’re in.  And if you find yourself focusing on someone else’s behaviors, like the tightness of their jeans or their third helping of stuffing, check what part of your own business you’re avoiding. Observe your own resistance, offer yourself some sympathy, then commit to dealing with what you can change: your stuff. Better yet, enlist your partner, sibling, or trusted family member. Tell him about the difficulty or scariness of your business. He’ll probably listen and maybe offer help—and presto! Your need to get into his business will be replaced by increased love and gratitude.  Besides, a little vulnerability goes a long way in building and strengthening relationships.

Put Down the Gavel and Step Off the Bench

Are you putting on a black robe, grabbing a gavel and judging everything you say, do, wear and eat?  Sometimes, the words of our inner critic – our inner judge, really – are worse than anything others might say. This is why an innocent comment from Uncle Coy about the pumpkin pie makes you believe that he’s calling you fat.  Make peace with yourself (and if you haven’t yet, sign a Peace Agreement post haste).  When you release your inner critic, when you unzip those judge’s robes,  you can enjoy the holiday banter.

 Step off the Witness Stand

When people say rude or mean things, it’s tempting to snap back.  Sure, it might make you feel better in the moment, but in the long run (especially if, like me, you have people-pleasing tendencies) you’ll end up using beating up on yourself. Insecurities and fears make many people do less-than-nice things. Like being on the witness stand in court, it’s often not personal. You simple trigger a negative response because of their past interactions with other people. If you step back and apply compassion and empathy to the situation, you can re-frame this person in your mind, and keep your boxing gloves off.

Choose Not to Sit in the Gallery

Sometimes, events do become tense and uncomfortable.  You may be tempted to become small and quiet, like a mouse, bearing witness to the unpleasantries around you.  But you have another option. If a courtroom drama is beginning to unfold, you can walk out of the courtroom.  Remove yourself from the situation by offering to help with the dishes, excusing yourself to the restroom, or just taking a walk. You have the right to honor yourself and your needs. Alternatively, put your wits to good use. There’s nothing wrong with trying to turn the conversation to another subject or injecting a humorous change.  Stepping out of the family politics and drama can lead to others following your example.

 Settle Out of Court

And now for some flat-out honesty:  if the thought of spending time with your family makes you ill, then stay home. You don’t have to submit to being emotionally or verbally abused.   The world is full of unhappy people and sometimes, these people are family members.  You have a right to enjoy the holidays, just like you have the right to be happy. Don’t make a rash decision, of course. Life is short.   Do a little meditation and listen to what your heart tells you.    And if your heart tells you it wants to go, then by all means spend some time with your family.  Just remember these tips for dealing with ’em.  (And don’t hesitate to shorten the length of your trip and/or stay in a hotel!)

No matter what the holiday brings, focus on the positive aspects of those around you instead of their negative traits.  As crazy as they may make you feel, they are still your family.  And deep down, you love them.  Keep in your business.  Don’t take things personally.  This doesn’t mean that you don’t help, support, and encourage those you love. It’s simply a reminder not to get involved with trying to change your family.  You only have the power to change yourself.

What can you do this holiday season to stay out of the Family Courthouse and step towards the simply delight of sharing love and laughter with your family?

(Image is “The Verdict Was…Wow” by Gil Elvgren)