Holiday Harmony with Difficult People

  • December 10, 2019
  • Dr. Oldham
  • John M. Oldham, M.D.

BY JOHN M. OLDHAM, M.D.

If you are expecting holiday harmony, you may have to think twice. The family gathering just may not turn out like the Norman Rockwell images of perfect family bliss. Instead, as a Thanksgiving-day op-ed in the New York Times put it, “Make Room at the Table for Difficult People.”

Grumble, grumble

Conversations such as these are so commonplace we smile about them (now or later):

Son: “Dad, do we HAVE to all sit at the table and listen to grandpa’s boring stories that we’ve all heard a million times??”

Husband: “Honey, I’m really sorry that your sister will be in Tibet and can’t get here for the holidays. Is Tibet far enough away?”

Wife: “Well at least your insufferable brother is not coming, and who knows, my sister might cancel her trip and be here after all.”

Daughter: “I don’t care if you think my best friend is obnoxious. If you don’t invite her, she and I will go to the mall for our Thanksgiving dinner. And you know I don’t eat turkey any more, but you insist on serving it!”

Partner: “Can’t we just go away together this Christmas? We always go to your family’s house or my family’s house, and everybody’s really nice until somebody gets into politics and the shouting starts. It’s so tedious.”

Grandmother: “I’m bringing my famous cauliflower pie, so don’t worry–I know how much everyone loves it.” (Daughter, hand over phone, “Ugh!”)

Most of the time, incidents prove minor, we all reach some semblance of harmony, and everybody gets over it. But not always.

Difficult people

What do we mean by “difficult people”? Certainly we have compassion for family members with diagnosed behavior disorders such as the autistic son of Annette Laureau, the author of the op-ed piece, and even if we might feel a certain dread that an upsetting scene could await us again this year, we try to be patient and understanding. But we all know people—friends and family and co-workers—who are insensitive, irritating, way too self-infatuated, dictatorial, or, conversely, so thin-skinned that we have to walk on eggs around them.

As we think about the people who rub us the wrong way, The New Personality Self-Portrait (NPSP25.com) can be helpful. Think about their personality styles and all the behaviors and attitudes that go along with them. And think about your own.

Maybe your brother-in-law is really insecure underneath and this is all bluster. And, like it or not, any of us can act like a jerk sometimes too.

Well, yeah, your cousin has always been that way, and maybe she can’t help it. But come on, anybody can see that she talks non-stop, nobody else can get a word in edgewise. Doesn’t she realize that? How could she not? But then again, maybe she does but underneath is extremely socially anxious, so she creates a dust storm of words so no-one can see her.

Coping with personality differences

We all are “born that way” to some degree, and each person’s developmental life experiences add to the hard-wired part to produce a unique personality. In the book, The New Personality Self-Portrait, we provide “Tips” on dealing with persons with specific prominent personality styles. Maybe we can’t get someone to change, but perhaps we can figure out how to get along better. For example, Tips on dealing with the Vigilant person in your life include, among others:
1. Accept the person’s emotional reserve.
2. Avoid competition and power struggles.
3. Expect defensiveness when you criticize or confront this person.
4. Don’t tease.

So here’s a good holiday lesson: Don’t brace yourself for battle at the holiday table, arming yourself with new arguments and assembled facts to pull out of your quiver and take aim. Instead, think a little about what each person is like, what made them that way, and how to keep the waters calm. And if sparks fly, limit the noise to interesting fireworks but don’t start a war. Remember, you bring yourself to the table, too.