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Mental Health

Expert Advice: How Do I Prevent My Family From Driving Me Nuts?

Here's how to calm your frazzled nerves.


We love our relatives, but holiday get-togethers can be admittedly tense. If your family is driving you nuts, don’t book an early ticket home just yet — we’re here to help. From our experts, here are six easy ways to calm your frazzled nerves and grow closer to those you hold dear.

Meet our expert panel

  • Abby Medcalf, PhD, is a relationship expert, author, motivational speaker, and thought leader who helps thousands of people create connection and happiness.
  • Kathleen Smith, PhD, author of Everything Isn’t Terrible: Conquer Your Insecurities, Interrupt Your Anxiety, and Finally Calm Down, is a counselor in D.C.
  • Lysa TerKeurst, author of Good Boundaries and Goodbyes: Loving Others Without Losing the Best of Who You Are, is president of Proverbs 31 Ministries.

Let go of ‘shmear.’

It’s easy to feel a combination of shame and fear — or “shmear” — when confronted with tense family dynamics, says expert Abby Medcalf, PhD, (who credits Eve Ekman, PhD, of UC Berkley’s Greater Good Science Center, for the term). “When we’re self-conscious, it’s often shame we feel — like if a relative asks about our personal life,” she says. “This leads to fear that we won’t be accepted.” But just acknowledging that family get-togethers can be scary is the start of letting go of stress.

Find peace in 18 seconds.

Before you set sail for the potentially stormy seas of a family gathering, take 18 seconds to set an intention, urges Medcalf. “I take a deep breath and slowly exhale while repeating, ‘My intention is to be patient.’ The conscious mind processes 40 bits of information per second, while the subconscious processes 11 million bits per second — so when you have a positive intention, your subconscious gives that off, instantly shifting your energy.”

Tap into curiosity.

“Put on your ‘scientist’ hat and watch your family’s behavior patterns,” advises expert Kathleen Smith, PhD. “Ask yourself what they do when they get stressed. Does your brother leave the room? Does your mom put more food on her plate? The act of observing calms your body and sparks the problem-solving part of your brain.”

Give yourself permission to set boundaries.

Having healthy boundaries just means being clear with others about your needs. “For example, if you don’t want to have polarizing conversations, kindly tell relatives that you don’t have the emotional capacity to talk politics,” says expert Lysa TerKeurst. Indeed, respecting others’ boundaries while ensuring they respect yours, is the foundation of strong relationships.

Clarify your needs.

Boundaries fail when they’re extreme: either too “thin” or too “thick,” observes Medcalf. To find that sweet spot, just be specific. “I have a client who lost 40 pounds and doesn’t want to talk about her weight, so she sent her family an email before they gathered, thanking them for their encouragement — and letting them know that while she doesn’t want to discuss weight, there are many other subjects she looks forward to talking about.” Rather than a wall keeping others out, this boundary is an invitation to share her world.

Boost bonds together.

We “co-create” all of our relationships, says Medcalf. “So if a relative keeps prodding you, consider having a conversation like, ‘I know you love me, but we have to figure out together why you ask me about X — it makes me feel like I’m not good enough.’” As soon as you say, “We have to change this dynamic,” you’re acting as a team to grow closer — exactly what the holidays are all about.

A version of this article originally appeared in our print magazine, Woman’s World.

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