Dreading Family Gatherings—Learn Practical Tips To Deal With Them

It is always a pleasure to see family members you haven’t seen in a while during a family gathering. You enjoy some food as you reflect on the year that’s just been, and let those pent-up tensions out.

However, family gatherings can be uncomfortable in some cases if you don’t know how to act around certain people. You can make yourself more comfortable when dreading family gatherings by using some tips in this article.

There is almost nothing worse than staring at your calendar and seeing one, or multiple events that you do not want to go to, and that feeling can be even worse when it is a family event.

There is a tremendous sense of obligation that comes with attending a family gathering. It does not help when you already have feelings of stress or anxiety associated with the event itself or the people in attendance.

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Consider the ‘why’

It is essential to dig deep and think about why you feel the way that you feel. Before you can work towards a resolution, a compromise, or a feeling of peace surrounding family events, you must figure out why they are so dreadful in the first place.

Take a look at your reasons for dreading family gatherings.

Is it you?

Is it possible that the reason you are feeling overwhelmed is rooted in yourself? Maybe you have some unresolved internal issues that are manifesting themselves in the form of social anxiety.

Families are often a source of support, but in some cases, being around the people, we are the closest to when we are feeling uncomfortable in our own skin, for whatever reason, can feel less like support and more like discomfort.

dreading family gatherings

If you are feeling anxious energy, do not avoid those feelings. Some questions that you can ask yourself to determine if the issue is your relatives or if the issue is internal are:

  • Do I feel this way about all gatherings, or exclusively family get-togethers?
  • Have I previously felt this way about attending events in general?
  • Why am I dreading family gatherings?

Is this a tense or transitional period of time?

Sometimes we do not want to be around people because we do not want to talk about touchy subjects.

Consider the expression ‘there’s an elephant in the room.’ Regardless of if the touchy subject has something to do with you or with other people who will be there, the mere existence of tension can make you not want to go at all. The American Psychological Association acknowledges how even issues like recent political events can impede our desire to socialize.

Difficult life challenges such as a divorce, job loss, terminal illness, or legal trouble can certainly impact the mood of an event. It is not uncommon for it to seem like everyone knows, but nobody is talking about it, making all conversations awkward.

If this is the case, and the reason you fear joining the group, remember that this is temporary and will not always be the reality of every family outing.

Is your hang-up specific to one person?

Perhaps it is not the event you want to avoid, but a specific person or a couple of people who will also be there. Especially at events like family holiday gatherings where there is likely to be many people who attend, you may feel like you have no choice but to be in the same room with certain family members who make you feel uncomfortable.

If this is the case, be sure that you set realistic expectations for your interactions with this person or people.

Do not assume that just because it is family time, they will behave in a way that proves you wrong. It is essential to have a high level of self-honesty in situations like this because when you try to convince yourself out of the truth, the letdown can be greater than it originally would have been had you been honest with yourself.

Letting go of feeling obligated

We all make emotional exceptions when it comes to family. However, doing so can cause our mental health to take a real hit.

We often feel that family gatherings are required, but are they?

Suppose your next family gathering puts you in a position where you have to choose between attending over your own mental and emotional well-being. In that case, you really should consider how to combat the feeling of obligation.

Saying no is not easy for many people. Here are a few polite but pointed things to think about when you have to say no to a family member pushing you outside of your comfort zone.

1. Be courteous

Always be polite. Even when you must be stern in tone or draw a hard line, it is always in everyone’s best interest for you to be as adult and polite as possible.

When emotions are running high, it can be challenging to remember your manners, however sometimes reacting with a temper can make you feel guilty about how you acted, on top of feeling that way about having to say no in the first place.

If you are declining an invitation, it is always considerate to:

  • Respect the host’s time. If the invitation has an ‘RSVP by’ date, be respectful of it, and send back your regrets as early as possible.
  • Acknowledge the invitation. Even if you cannot attend or simply do not want to, thank them for thinking of you.

2. Stick to your guns

If you have decided on a no, stick to it. In some cases, other family members may try to talk you into reconsidering but giving in to that form of pressure is not doing you any favors.

You may experience some self-doubt if this happens, but remember why you decided on a no in the first place. Even if you keep those reasons private and use them only as a mental reminder and self-validation, do not waver in your stance.

3. Do not over-explain yourself

You will not be able to control how someone reacts to having been told no, but that also means that it is not your job to manage that. You do not owe your extended family, or anyone, details as to why you have decided what you have decided.

In many cases, the simpler you keep your statement and responses, the better.

Sometimes the guilt trip that you will receive as a result of saying no to family gatherings is the clear evidence that you need to feel justified for having elected to skip it in the first place.

While it can feel flattering that people want your company, it doesn’t matter if you give your time at the cost of your mental health or choose something else instead of the family function.

4. Suggest an alternative

This is an excellent example of why it is crucial to identify your why before deciding.

Perhaps you are saying no because of one other person who will be there, and you would, in any other scenario, love to spend time with the host. If this is the case, suggest an alternative when you are declining their invitation.

This strategy can look like this:

dreading family gatherings

  • “Unfortunately, I cannot make dinner next Saturday, but I would love for you and me to get coffee the following week.”
  • “A monthly group play date is too fixed for my family’s schedule, but I would love to host you next Friday night for a pizza party.”
  • “This year, we are keeping our holidays more intimate; what dates do you have available after the new year for us to have dinner?”

How to take care of yourself at family gatherings

When your level of dread is not high enough to make you decide to skip the event altogether, you still need to know how to take care of yourself regarding how you feel about it, even when you agree to attend.

1. Have options

Know that you always have options, and that includes the choice not to go. However, when you are saying yes, still have a plan. Some options to consider are:

  • Driving yourself and going by yourself so that you are free to leave on your own time.
  • Not offering to help with planning, setting up, or tearing down of the event.
  • Limit or omit alcohol consumption so that drinking does not dictate your options.

2. Embrace being powerless

Even when you have identified the family triggers, you cannot control, predict, or count on, such as the behavior, conversation, and aftermath of other people or a specific event. It will help if you embraced the fact that you are powerless over other people or you will not be able to relax. If you cannot accept this fact, you may not be prepared to attend.

3. Give yourself grace

Do not beat yourself up over how you feel. You are allowed to have emotions and perspectives that differ from your family.

You are certainly entitled to make decisions for your own life based on your individual feelings and views. Part of being your best self is being kind to yourself, especially during times of discomfort. The National Institute of Mental Health suggests that coping with trauma can change and shape us in many ways, including who we choose to be around and when.

4. Set boundaries

Boundaries are incredible in all elements of our lives. It can be difficult to assert boundaries with family, especially with elder relatives, as there is an unspoken element of respect that comes with that dynamic. However, remind yourself that boundaries are healthy and necessary.

You are not wrong or bad for needing or wanting to put some conditions on the details of attending any gathering.

5. Find an ally

Even if you know only one person who shares the same feelings at the family event, that is all you need. Find an ally and talk about your plan with them. This offers some accountability for you and can also provide a level of support that will boost your confidence.

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Do not let the trickiness of this dynamic convince you that managing it in a way that best suits you is not an option.

If you have this constant feeling feeling of dread, analyze yourself each time a group function with family comes up. We do not get to choose our family; that is also something to remember.

You don’t need to enjoy and look forward to these parties and the people who attend them. But if you feel an aversion and wish you did not go, work through it, either on your own or with a therapist, so that you are at peace no matter what decision you make.

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