Stephanie Newman Ph.D.

Apologies To Freud

Tips for Surviving Another Thanksgiving with Your Family

Strategies for Dealing with Passive- Aggressive Relatives

Posted Apr 18, 2011

What does Thanksgiving mean to you: Turkey and football, a four day weekend, or perhaps, a chance to express gratitude for a multitude of blessings? For some, the next couple of weeks will bring all of the above, and more--who could possibly imagine the holidays without a large noisy family gathering?

Family get-togethers are often fraught. Grandma has too much to drink. Cousin Sally has had a little therapy--not so much that she's gotten any better, but enough that she walks around confronting everyone and telling them how they make her feel. And the newest member of the family, the toddler in the princess tee-shirt, has a not-yet- diagnosed stomach flu--which everyone else will contract by tomorrow. Aren't families great?

One pitfall commonly encountered during a visit with relatives: the subtle put down. We all know how that goes: "you'd be so pretty if you lost weight." "You got that promotion? Wow--I couldn't believe it when I heard." "I love that sweater on YOU, though."

Anyone who's ever had a family meal has been there. The offender says it so sweetly and so quietly, you wonder whether you've even heard her correctly. And we all have a niece or cousin or in law like this.

So, what causes people to behave this way--and why the need for subtle put-downs? Generally speaking, they are an attempt to deal with feelings of anger or insecurity. Knock someone down, and you feel better about yourself. At least until someone turns it around and does it to you.

So what's an unsuspecting pilgrim-lover to do?

Dr. Valerie Golden, a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Minneapolis, Minnesota, offers five tips for surviving the holiday meal:

First, read between the lines. Even though your sister says something quietly, without blinking an eye, and even if she says it in a sweet voice, don't take her words at face value. "If it sounds good but it feels bad, it's passive aggressive," says Dr. Golden.

Next, don't be confused by the sweet tone, and don't let it get to you. "Once you figure out your relative's behavior is passive aggressive, his subtle put-down won't hurt you--you won't feel as badly," she continues.

Third, take action: "Once you realize what is really going on, you have a few choices," Dr. Golden counsels. Meaning, the act of seeing Great Aunt Tilly for what she really is--a wolf in sheep's clothing--opens up your options.

Dr. Golden offers these strategies for dealing with passive aggressive relatives:

--Call the person on it. Think about confronting the offending relative. Say something like, "What do you mean; I like this sweater-why do you insist on making fun of my clothing?"

--Take the high road. Ignore the subtle put down and socialize with someone else.

--Make a joke. "Plastic surgery, you ask? Good thing I'm not sensitive."

These few tips should help you survive--and will possibly even enable you to give thanks.

Dr. Golden and I would like to dedicate this post to our respective families. Let the games begin.

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