How to effectively engage in traditional family gatherings (like Festivus)

George Costanza and his father stand up during a tense interaction at the dinner table

The family gathering is a common enough event, even in modern life. But for many people, weekends spent with family can be very stressful.

One major stressor is that there are a lot of spoken, and unspoken, expectations at these events. Each person brings their own expectations of what a successful family gathering looks like. And many family members will bring expectations of how others should, or should not operate to make the gathering a “success.”

Additionally, some family members will even come with expectations of what other folks should be doing with their life, their relationships, their children or their jobs.

And it bears mentioning that some people will imagine that others have expectations about their own behaviour. These are projected expectations. The worst kind! These are expectations about expectations and can be really hard to even be aware of, let alone manage. They lead to us making assumptions and then taking action based on those assumptions. It inevitably makes for some bad choices.

All in all, there are a lot of expectations floating around family gatherings and this makes for a complicated social terrain. These challenges are also opportunities.

It is a ripe environment for exercising, or practicing, emotional intelligence skills. Self-management and genuine curiosity about others are the necessary ingredients for not only surviving, but thriving through festivus!

Specifically, self-management includes assertiveness, empathy and reality testing in addition to emotional self-awareness and expression. If we can focus on these five competencies, we may have greater success at meeting our expectations. If we are clear about our expectations and openly state them in addition to being authentically curious about others’ expectations, there is greater likelihood of everyone’s stress levels dropping.

Let’s look at one at a time. Emotional self-awareness comes first. What am I feeling right now? What do I desire in this family gathering? How will I exhibit those feelings? How will I be part of my own solution?

“Festivus is a collaboration. People will collaborate once they feel safe enough to do so.”

When we are clear about what we’re feeling, there is an increased possibility that we will be able to express our emotions clearly and assertively. This helps so much to make our relationships more real. It takes energy to carefully present only a portion of ourselves. It can be very draining. So expressing ourselves clearly, and getting clear about what we feel comfortable with expressing, is an important part of getting the most out of festivus, and deepening, or managing, the relationships you have with the people there.

Now is a great time to get curious about others. This is where empathy and reality testing kicks in. Remember to encourage others to speak about their feelings and expectations. Authentic inquiry will yield some interesting information that is far more real than the assumptions we can leap to with very little information!

Ask questions in a way that signals to friends and family that you don’t feel entitled to answers, and that you care about what they think. And feel. Even saying out loud, “please don’t feel like you have to answer that,” can be a nice way to show caring and create a culture of consent.

Festivus is a collaboration. People will collaborate once they feel safe enough to do so. Family gatherings are more of an organic process than a planned and orchestrated or choreographed retreat!

In closing, we want to leave you with a key thought. Try some deep breathing as you walk into your next family gathering and say to yourself, the only thing I can control for the next three hours is myself and my intention is to enjoy myself and the company of my family.

George Costanza and his father stand up during a tense interaction at the dinner table

Two art pieces in black and white are displayed onto sand and light sage coloured backgrounds and they look complementary.

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