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Holiday Dinner Stress: Not on the Menu This Year

Volume XVII, Number 4 Winter 2020

A year ago, after I wrote the Holiday Stress Navigator, I realized I had left out a specific holiday event, which is stressful for many. For some families, Christmas dinner itself tops the list of stressful events. This piece is not for everyone. My intent here is to address the family members who are challenged every year at the dinner table by a narcissist or other difficult person, who feel hurt every time, and who just dread the event. I have several among my clients, and it is a familiar disappointment. The initiators of stressful comments and behaviors are often the family members who will not heal or improve their behavior. Among some people, there is actually no chance that their behavior will change. So I want to help vulnerable family members protect themselves.


This year you can handle dinner table communication better. In many families, it is nearly impossible to graciously avoid the tension of the meal and its conversation. In 2020, with our scaled down groups of guests, you may be fortunate that the most stressful person you encounter at the table each year will not be there. The gathering restrictions in your location may be too limited to include all of the usual guests. Even if your family has lost a member this year, maybe your dinner can be an opportune time for you to highlight one positive quality that missing person once brought to the gatherings. This could be a chance for you to step up and think creatively. Or your constellation of guests may be just the opposite; the most stressful person will be there at your table with far fewer buffers. Maybe all of these individuals are stressful for you.


It is completely possible to take charge of your experience and the family dynamics that affect everyone present. You, on your own, can improve the dinner table experience dramatically. The only requirements are: preparedness (see below), commitment and follow through.

If you would like to be prepared and handle yourself better, read through these strategies and find one or two that can serve you well.


Novice Strategies for first-timers:

  1. The easiest strategy for a more peaceful experience is to simply change the subject when a hot topic begins to arise. It’s lovely if there can be some kind of plausible segue, but this is not necessary. You may simply bring up something else, even if a question has been asked of you or of someone else. To make it most manageable, a neutral subject is useful, like, “How about this weather we have been having lately?” Or “I’m wondering what everyone’s thoughts are on Daylight Savings vs. Standard Time?” Or bring up a sport you are not invested in like, “What is the most popular kind of snow sport?” Just be quiet and let them talk. You will likely have made a contribution.

  2. Another defensive strategy, also fairly easy in that it is straightforward for you to manage, is to decline to disagree with anything. This requires you to prioritize peace over authenticity. For those of you who view this as dishonest, it will be a stretch. I do not actually view it as lying or deceitful, but instead as a new priority. You know certain people are not going to agree with you, no matter what you say, so this is a way of stepping aside from that drama. As a secondary note, you can enjoy the feeling of strength this gives you by taking charge of the stress and not allowing it to control you. Instead, you will have a feeling of confidence at having protected yourself. You will be controlling what you are and are not available for. It is quite a different feeling, a distinct improvement on the old way. Another version of this kind of conversation strategy is, “You could be right about that.” You can say this in response to just about anything.

  3. This next strategy is the most defensive one and will not apply at all to some readers. You will need to have a memorized prayer deeply ingrained or find something you can memorize and then repeat to yourself on a loop that will serve to distract you. For example, say the Lord’s Prayer silently to yourself while the person who is likely to inflame you is talking. Look at them, smile, say this prayer over and over until they stop talking, and you will not hear much of what they say. In fact, if you use the Lord’s Prayer, every once in a while think about the phrase you are reciting to help you maintain perspective. Even this will help. You can also follow this up with a subject change as described in #1. Advanced Strategies for those who have some experience with this effort:

  4. Only say positive comments and look for the good in everything. Smile a lot. The other dinner participants may notice and wonder about your peaceful presence. You have the right to opt out of hurtful attacks and punitive interactions, and to choose peace. You do not have to participate the way you have for years. Confiding beforehand in one of your family members who is an ally that this is your plan strengthens this strategy. You can even ask this person for a quick, subtle glance once in a while to confirm their support.

  5. A related strategy is to prepare a compliment for each person who will be with you. These compliments need to be true. You may bring up such a comment in the midst of anything – an argument, silence or civil discourse – and it is a specific compliment for only one person. An example would be: “[Name], you have a great sense of humor, what a gift.” Or, “[Name], you are very resourceful, and I learn about this attitude from you.” In the service of making an effort, if possible summon a little curiosity about the difficult person’s world. Ask for details about a part of that person’s (or everyone’s) past, like, “What was something in your childhood that felt like a turning point or had something to do with who you’ve become today?” or “What is your most treasured memory?” At the very least, the other family members will see that you are making an effort.

  6. Before you ever sit down at the table, go flat emotionally. If you haven’t done this before, it may sound impossible, but after you do it once, it will become much easier. For one thing, you will experience the power of this strategy, which is entirely within your control, and the calm manner you exhibit will affect everyone at the table. To go flat, simply decide you will not react to anything anyone says…anything. The attitude is that nothing matters. These people will say things you disagree with, and whatever they say doesn’t matter at all. Just let it go as if what they have said has nothing at all to do with you. Smile and be silent.

To get yourself and your other dinner guests on board with the goal of a peaceful and joy-filled dinner, a week before the gathering send a note to everyone who will be there saying how much you’re looking forward to peace and joy at the family gathering - and that you are going to do your part to create it with everyone. You can even do this twice, two weeks before and one week before. Be sure to decorate your note with holiday pictures and words.


All of the troubling developments of 2020 will have an effect on family gatherings at the holidays this year. Your objective can be to soften the blows of 2020 a little by facilitating a more peaceful holiday dinner. In addition to the peace these strategies will help you bestow on others, you will benefit tremendously from the sense of accomplishment and self-discipline you have due to taking charge of your own emotions. These behaviors are difficult because you are going against the tide of your old habits. You will not be able to let down in your efforts and relax during the meal. It is work to maintain the focus. Make no mistake about this, it is work! This is most effective if you prepare, commit and follow through for the entire meal. And like so many other behaviors I teach, the rewards are worth far more than the effort.


This entire topic and these instructions are not for everyone, only for those who fear feeling trapped and mistreated by family members during the holidays. The dinner itself is a focused opportunity to behave in new, positive ways. If you gather the courage to do this, you will benefit. Additional family members may benefit too.

© 2020 Thayer Cheatham Willis. All Rights Reserved.


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