Caroline Cranshaw: Life hacks for dealing with difficult people during Christmas

Publish Date
Thursday, 29 November 2018, 10:00AM

Ah, the holidays. Nothing like some family time, after an incredibly stressful lead-up, to bring out our most intense white-knuckled anxiety or murderous rage. My parents divorced when I was three, and both remarried several times, so it wasn’t unusual to go to three or more houses on Christmas day.

My family was like many others as some of them were highly educated and successful, others I wouldn’t be surprised to see on an episode of Cops. I have found when it comes to issues with family dramas, personality disorders and addictions, the level of intelligence and socioeconomic status doesn’t seem to be a factor.

Even seemingly balanced people will regress back to a whining child or snarly teenager within a few minutes of a family visit. There was always drama no matter what house I went to but as a result, I have become an expert on how to deal with difficult people, without committing murder ... Here are my best tips for getting through the holidays, with your sanity intact.

1. Don’t go

Seriously, if someone drives you completely insane, just stay home. You do have a choice and if you don’t want to do something or see someone, don’t do it. Saying no to going to certain events or only going every other year has been one of the most freeing things I have ever done. I can’t count how many clients I’ve had who have been in an absolute panic about going to another Christmas or family event and having to sit across from the family member who molested them or abused them in some horrible way. You don’t have to spend time with people who have hurt you or that you really don’t want to be around, full stop. You have the right to say no to anything you find traumatic.

2. Look at going to a family function as an anthropological experiment

Go along as an observer and watch the dynamics as if you watching an indigenous tribe. See where the dysfunctional patterns come from and what everyone’s role is, even yours. If you don’t like how you behave or are triggered with family, use this knowledge to write your New Year’s Resolutions and to help you change yourself into a better, more aware version of you. We are all are a character in our family drama, and you can change the part you play at any time.

3. Be honest and don’t tolerate bad behaviour

You teach people how to treat you, and if you are allowing people to treat you badly, it’s going to keep happening. My grandmother had a Rat Terrier/Chihuahua cross rescue dog, named Lily that was the most horribly behaved dog I have ever come across. She snarled, bit anyone who tried to touch her, chased cats and barked constantly. Walking her was like trying to walk a rabid gremlin. My grandmother would lovingly pat and praise her whenever she misbehaved, saying all poor little Lily needed was love.

When my grandmother died, we thought we were going to have to put her down, since she was such a nightmare. To my utter shock, my father volunteered to take her. My father has always had cats and seemed to dislike dogs as much as his former mother-in-law, the owner of Lily.

When I went to visit them a week after dropping the little monster off, I could not believe my eyes. Lily was now the most perfectly behaved dog I have ever come across. My father just winked at me and said "It’s amazing what a rolled piece of newspaper and a loud 'No!' can do. I don’t tolerate bad behaviour, Caroline. You should know that. You just say no and wait for the tantrum to pass. Worked with you." People do what they know they can get away with.

Things you can say in response to bad behaviour:

  • Wow, are you having a bad day?
  • That was hurtful and not very nice. I’m going to walk away now.
  • It’s not okay to talk to me like that, don’t do it again.
  • I’m sorry, I wasn’t listening. Can you repeat that?
  • Well, I think we’ve reached the end of this conversation.
  • Ouch. Did you mean to be that rude?
  • Wait a minute. There must be something wrong with my ears. Did you actually just say….
  • Hang, on. Can you do that again? I want to get my camera out so I can put this on Youtube.
  • Hmm, maybe you should go talk to them about it and sort it out instead of bitching to me.

4. Say nothing and just stare at the person

Just because someone throws some sh*t at you, doesn’t mean you need to pick it up and rub it all over yourself and throw some back. Saying nothing but staring at them straight in the eye, puts it all back on them. This technique is one of my favourites because it works so well. And then just shake your head and walk away. It’s amazing how quickly people backpedal and feel like a total arse without you having to say a word.

5. Psych them out

Now, this what I use with more unstable family members who are causing a disturbance. When my grandmother was on her deathbed and the family was gathered around, my schizophrenic/bi-polar aunt decided this was a good time to talk about how she is so tired because her flatmate likes to have loud anal sex all night. My poor grandmother was in a coma but started flopping around like a fish, obviously distressed by what she was hearing. My aunt then started yelling at my grandmother “Go to the light, Jesus is waiting for you! I want my inheritance.” She then proceeded to list all things she was going to buy with the money.

I knew from experience that my aunt only escalated her behaviour if you told her to stop, so I thought of another approach. I looked at her with a very concerned expression and asked if she was feeling okay. She replied, “Yes, I’m fine. Why?” I told her she looked very pale and asked again if she was sick since she looked like she was about to pass out. She sat down looking worried and said: “Actually, now that you mention it, I don’t feel very good.” I acted very concerned and told her she needed to lie down, she looked very unwell, and she should go back to her hotel. She agreed to be taken to her hotel and left us so my grandmother could pass in peace. One of the easiest way to get rid of a psycho without a fight ... 

6. Forgive yourself if you lose it

Now we are all doing our best, but sometimes you may act like an idiot when your buttons get pushed. I consider myself very self-aware and good at conflict resolution, but sometimes I still lose the plot. Right before the US presidential election, my partner’s colleague invited us to a dinner party. When we arrived, they informed us that there was an American couple coming for dinner, and we should have lots in common since I’m American as well.

The couple arrived, seemed very nice and once we were seated at dinner, the conversation turned to the upcoming election. The American couple were big fans of Mr Trump, and my partner looked at me with fear in his eyes as while he didn’t like the Republican candidate, he knew my dislike was on par with Hitler and I’m always up for a political debate.

The poor hosts looked on in horror as the evening progressed into a drunken two-hour argument, cumulating with me trying to throttle the male Trump fan and threatening that I was going to hypnotize him to have a limp dick for the rest of life. His wife was trying to pull me off while screaming “Don’t you put that evil on me voodoo woman!” My partner dragged me out, apologising profusely.

Am I proud of my behaviour? No way. Do I drink less at dinner parties and agree to disagree instead of making everyone uncomfortable by having a screaming match with someone who will never agree with me? Definitely. Do I have a great story to tell for years to come, even though it makes me look like a psycho? Absolutely. Some of the best stories come from things going wrong so know that even if things go pear-shaped, you will have a great story you can laugh about later.

Know that the only person you can control is yourself, and decide how you are going to behave ahead of time. Try to not have any expectation and relax. Expect to be triggered by your family, and this will help you to identify and clear your own issues. As well as bringing presents, try to be present and breathe…

Caroline Cranshaw is a hypnotherapist, founder and trainer at the New Zealand Integrative Hypnotherapy Training Institute and the author of The Smoking Cure. Find out more about her at nzhypnotherapy.co.nz. Listen to Caroline's new podcast WTF Stories & Advice.