Tis’ the season for being around loved ones. For most of us, that includes the prospect of family drama, which usually comes in the form of one disagreement or another. And research shows that interpersonal conflict with family members is a major relapse trigger.
This reality means the holidays are an especially vulnerable time for anyone in early recovery, making how you navigate family conflict during this period critical to your sobriety. When you go home this holiday season, consider taking these five tips with you:
- Establish your healthy boundaries before you go. You know best what interactions are more likely to set you off, triggering an emotional chain reaction that could lead to relapse. Resolve in advance of your visit to avoid any conversations that will make you angry or trigger other negative emotions. For example, if conversations about politics or religion have historically been a sore spot for you, draw that red line ahead of time and honor it. Knowing what your limits are before you enter any potential conflict zone is crucial. This way you can be psychologically more prepared to disengage from a conflict if it should occur.
- Don’t try to control others’ behaviors. You’ve learned this core recovery principle by now, but it’s especially important to bear in mind when your “fight or flight” response kicks in during a confrontation with a difficult family member. Focus instead on what you can control: your own thoughts, choices and behaviors. Often what can be helpful in this process is to ask yourself what you want out of a particular interaction, so that you can then channel your thoughts, choices and behaviors in that direction.
- Let up– don’t try to win. When someone says or does something that hurts your feelings, anger is a natural and normal reaction. That anger can feed the temptation to put on the boxing gloves and start taking verbal swings at an opponent. For many of us, reacting in this manner is a default mode of relating to others— just one more way that we try to control outcomes. And it’s built on the premise that we can in fact win the argument, and that our self-esteem/pride/wellbeing/fill in the blank will somehow be better off when we have won. False. Letting up is letting go of an outcome that you can’t really control anyway. So don’t try to win a conflict that’s not worth the sacrifice of your health.
- Walk away. The real way to “win” an argument, then, is to walk away with one’s sanity and sobriety intact. Sometimes the only way to protect oneself from an emotional trigger is literally to walk away from an escalating conflict. You don’t have to give an excuse for why you’re walking away either. You can say matter-of-factly, “I’m done with this conversation,” and leave the room. Physically disengage. If you feel more comfortable having an excuse for why you’re leaving the conversation, have one ready: “I need to make a phone call,” “I need to use the restroom,” “I forgot to wrap a few presents,” etc.
- Just observe and don’t participate. There is no law on the books that says that if other family members are arguing, you have to chime in or take sides. If someone eggs you on, don’t take the bait. Instead, take some deep breaths, sit back, and silently watch the proceedings. You’ll soon be feeling proud of yourself that you kept your cool— and, your recovery will thank you for it.