The 3 Words You Need for Any Holiday Family Conflict, from a Holocaust Survivor and Psychologist

Avoiding family conflict around the holidays can feel like you're walking on eggshells, but these simple secrets to defusing tension from a clinical psychologist will keep your gatherings merry and bright.

The holiday season can be full of wonder and joy, or it can be laden with anxiety and animosity. In most cases, it’s a bit of both. In many cases, the tone of a holiday celebration can be ruined—sometimes in an instant by one person’s offhand remark—but it doesn’t have to be this way. Instead, we can take the high road, creating safe spaces to empowering each other with our differences. 

The Healthy @Reader’s Digest spoke with Dr. Edith Eger, clinical psychologist, Holocaust survivor and bestselling author of The Gift: 14 Lessons to Save Your Life, about managing challenging family dynamics. Over the holidays, people who don’t regularly see each other gather around the dinner table and are often confronted by tough conversations. 

Many of us were trained to suppress our feelings—hiding from our emotions and pushing them down—which can lead to outbursts of anger that have percolated, sometimes for months, years or even decades. Dr. Eger encourages us to explore our feelings and do our grief work to learn how to respond thoughtfully instead of reacting out of unprocessed feelings and raw emotions. “You can’t heal what you don’t feel,” she says. 

“A dysfunctional family is any family with more than one person in it,” says Mary Karr, author of The Liar’s Club, her memoir about growing up in a family plagued by substance abuse, depression and other mental health issues. Dealing with passive-aggressiveness and gaslighting from family members can lead to anxiety, PTSD and worse, but setting healthy limits and boundaries can help set us free. “Freedom is a choice we get to make again and again each day,” Dr. Eger says.

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How to avoid family conflict over the holidays

THE HEALTHY: How can we avoid a knee-jerk reaction when we’re triggered?

Dr. Eger: We can take a breath and remind ourselves to respond instead of reacting. We react out of our unprocessed feelings and respond when we can identify and express our feelings. I always say you can’t heal what you don’t feel

There are many good reasons why we avoid our feelings: they’re uncomfortable, or they’re not the feelings we think we should be having, we’re afraid of how they might hurt others, or we’re afraid of what they could mean—what they might reveal about the choices we’ve made or the ones we will make going forward. And if you try to shut something out and say, “I don’t want to think about it,” I guarantee you’ll think about it. 

So invite the feeling in, sit down with it and face every reality. If you want to live peacefully and not have knee-jerk reactions, then it is time to stop fighting or running and hiding. It is time to remember that a feeling is just a feeling—it’s not your identity. Becoming aware of your emotions is a great step, so then you can express them. The opposite of depression is expression

If you’re worried you might be triggered at the dinner table, then do some work ahead of time. Take time before dinner to promise yourself that you’ll face any challenging situations and respond to anything you need to, not in the moment, but when the time is right for you. You aren’t running; you’re biding your time to engage when you are ready. 

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When should you skip a family gathering?

THE HEALTHY: Is it ever appropriate to cancel showing up to a gathering?

Dr. Eger: Listen to your body and listen to your spirit—the spirit never lies. You are in control of your life—of your thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and behaviors. You get to decide where and when you go, and, most importantly, you get to choose why. If you decide to cancel attending a gathering, that is totally your right. Be true to yourself. 

And also, pay attention to why you want to cancel. Perhaps it is a toxic situation, and you are better off not going. Maybe you are running from something that could be useful to turn and face. I don’t know your situation. But you do. Deep in your heart, you can tell if you are running and hiding from the past, stuck in a story that no longer serves you. If this is true for you, it is time to begin to do the work to heal your past and unlock your potential. 

That may still mean canceling this year, but canceling because you’ve committed to healing your past. And cancel with kindness and honesty, if you can, so you don’t create more suffering for yourself or others.

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THE HEALTHY: When do you know it’s time to leave? And if things turn tense, what’s a wise way to make an exit? 

Dr. Eger: If things are tense, be a take-charge person and give yourself permission to leave. You don’t need to stay in a situation that is uncomfortable or traumatic. Often people confuse being socially appropriate as the highest good. While it’s important to be respectful—and we often think of being respectful of others—we must start by respecting ourselves. If someone is saying something offensive, kindly ask them to stop or just get up and leave. You do not need to make a scene, but you can just gently and kindly leave. They may be seeking confrontation, but you do not need to meet them there. Learn to trust yourself. 

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How should you talk about polarizing topics during holiday gatherings?

THE HEALTHY: Any advice on how to deal with family members whose opinions on hot topics like politics and COVID differ wildly from your own or are so extreme you can’t reason with them? What’s a polite way to deflect? Is it ok to have a “policy” against certain topics during the holidays?

Dr. Eger: The question I ask myself often is, how can we empower each other with our differences? You can be you, I can be me, and together we can be stronger. That’s the question you may want to ask yourself when you meet people who may hold different opinions over the holidays. Think about this person, and be in touch with what you really care about, not the extreme behavior, but what is truly important. 

You cannot change others; you can only change yourself. When we are triggered by someone’s behavior, it’s important to look deeper inside ourselves to understand why. Why is this important to me? What belief do I hold to be true that is being pushed or tested? What have I decided I can or cannot do or say that this person’s behavior is illuminating?

You don’t need to react to anything that is said. You can remain silent or leave if it’s too confronting. I find it helpful to ask myself these three questions: 

  1. Does it need to be said? 
  2. Does it need to be said by me? 
  3. Does it need to be said by me right now? 

And always remember, whatever you say, do so in a kind way. If your family is able to have a respectful conversation about what is acceptable and what is not at the dinner table, then you already have the tools to respectfully listen to other peoples’ ideas. You can listen deeply and ask great questions without having to agree. Take this opportunity to learn something new or to allow a family member to feel heard. Have some fun and be open to learning together.

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THE HEALTHY: If we’ve been traumatized by a family member, do we have to “get over it for the sake of everyone else?” If yes, what are some tips on how to protect ourselves while doing so?

Dr. Eger: Getting over it implies forgetting, and no, we do not forget. We might try to hide or run from the past, but we cannot escape the past’s imprint on us. What we can do is release the hold the past has on us and free ourselves from the mental prison of the past. We must go through the grief work to find forgiveness—for ourselves, our family, and those who have harmed us. By acknowledging the pain and suffering and then finding ways to see the gifts that have emerged in me because of my past, I can find inner peace. 

Freedom comes with responsibility. To be responsible for our lives is to take a risk to step out of our mental prisons. In my course, I gently guide people to explore their memories, feelings and hopes to discover who they truly are and to find the strength to step into that life. It takes practice and time. Self-love is self-care, not narcissistic, and I hope my course can help you discover that peace and love within yourself. 

Another misconception is that forgiveness is something we do for others, that we forgive or absolve them of the hurt they’ve caused us. Forgiveness is not about letting someone “off the hook” for what they did or trying to find a way to make it ok that they did these things. Forgiveness is something I do for myself and to myself. When I can forgive myself for how the past has impacted me—for how it has limited my self-belief and hope for the future—I can integrate all of myself and begin to find freedom in my choices. And in this way, I am taking care of my mental health. 

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What are the best ways to handle family conflict?

THE HEALTHY: We love how your work centers around shepherding people through “A life-changing journey to truly set you free,” and we know you have books and courses, but if you had three pieces of advice to offer our readers, what would they be?

Dr. Eger: 

  1. Remember that the key to freedom is in your pocket. As a psychologist; as a mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother; as an observer of my own and others’ behavior; and as an Auschwitz survivor, I am here to tell you that the worst prison is not the one the Nazis put me in. The worst prison is the one I built for myself in my mind. Although our lives have probably been very different, perhaps you know what I mean. Many of us experience feeling trapped in our minds. Our thoughts and beliefs determine, and often limit, how we feel, what we do, and what we think is possible. In my work, I’ve discovered that while our imprisoning beliefs show up and play out in unique ways, some common mental prisons contribute to suffering. The key is remembering you have the power to make a new choice and to step out of the prison of your mind.
  2. Freedom isn’t just a state of being; it is a lifetime practice Freedom is a choice we get to make again and again each day. Ultimately, freedom requires hope, which I define in two ways: the awareness that suffering, however terrible, is temporary; and the curiosity to discover what happens next. Hope allows us to live in the present instead of the past, with our focus on the future we want for ourselves and our families. In this way, we can unlock the doors of our mental prisons. We all have the capacity to choose. When nothing helpful or nourishing is coming from the outside, that is precisely when we can discover who we really are by looking inward. It’s not what happens to us that matters most; it’s what we do with our experiences. Take those first steps and then the next. Be curious about where it will lead you.
  3. Remember you can’t heal what you don’t feel  Develop a daily practice of checking in on your feelings. Pick a neutral time—for example, when you’re sitting down to a meal, waiting in the checkout line at the grocery store, or brushing your teeth. Take a few deep breaths and ask yourself, “What am I feeling right now?” Scan your body for sensations like tightness, tingling, pleasure, or pain. See if you can identify a feeling and just name it without judgment or trying to change it. By becoming more aware of our feelings, we can be in the driver’s seat and not be driven by them.

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THE HEALTHY: What’s a scripted response we can use when conversations around the holiday table turn tense?

Dr. Eger: Each situation and relationship is unique, and it is best to approach them as such, so I don’t recommend keeping note cards in your pocket of canned, scripted responses. The best way to diffuse a situation is to practice being in control of your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, so you can calmly approach any tension that arises. 

Of course, that takes time and practice. But right now, you have the freedom to choose. If you need to leave a situation quickly, you can always say: Thank you, but I can’t have this conversation right now, I need to attend to something, I’ll be back soon. (Then exit stage left.)

If you are not in a situation where you can leave, remember to respond and not react. Three of my favorite words are: Tell me more. When you use those words, you create a safe place for others to share. They may have been expecting conflict, and you met them with deep listening. This is how you can help others to release what they are holding on to—the things that are in the way of them being in a deeper relationship with you and others. Diffuse the tension by leaning in with an open heart.

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Jaime Stathis
Jaime Alexis Stathis is a nonfiction writer whose favorite topics are humans, technology, animals, wildlife, and the places where they intersect. She writes about health, wellness, technology, nutrition, and everything related to being a human being on a constantly evolving planet. Her work has been published in Self, Wired, Parade, Bon Appétit, The Independent, Rachael Ray In Season, and others. She is also a Licenced Massage Therapist. Jaime is working on a novel about a heroine who saves herself and a memoir about caring for her grandmother through the dark stages of dementia.