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Navigating Complicated Interpersonal Dynamics During the Holidays

For many individuals, the holidays are marked by wonderful moments. However, we cannot deny “the most wonderful time of the year” can also be influenced by significant stressors, such as feeling pressure to find great gifts, planning and preparing for large gatherings, feeling obligated to travel to the different yearly family parties, triggering moments provoking loneliness, sadness, and grief… Even though there can be a real part of us wanting to enjoy the holidays, there can also be another part dreading it. 

Of course, the holiday season is already looking very different this year. The global pandemic and its various impacts have forced us to slow down, required us to socialize and practice self-care creatively, and brought different types of losses and grief. As a clinical psychologist, I am supporting clients dealing with their disappointment and sadness for not celebrating the holidays as usual. I am also validating clients who feel relieved for not dealing with the same level of pressure they usually experience.

Through my clinical lenses, I also see this as an interesting opportunity for self-reflection and possible adjustments in our way to navigate those contentious relationships and hopefully finding more ease in dealing with them.

Dr. Karine Côté, D.Psy., C.Psych.

One difficulty that seems somewhat alleviated this year – but still present – is the obligation to face complicated interpersonal dynamics. Whether it is a problematic relationship with a parent, a sibling, in-laws, or friends, we now have the perfect reason to limit contact and staying home during the holidays. Through my clinical lenses, I also see this as an interesting opportunity for self-reflection and possible adjustments in our way to navigate those contentious relationships and hopefully finding more ease in dealing with them.

Reflect on your ideals

The other’s unmet ideals often fuel complex relationships (e.g., your parent, sibling, friend, etc.). When the other does or says something that triggers deep frustration, sadness, or disappointment, this emotion is most likely related to a need or ideal of this person that is once again not met. 

Example: When a mother makes a cold and critical remark, the immediate feelings of anger and sadness are linked to a wish of being validated and recognized by her – not just related to this one critic. The ideal of having a warm and encouraging mother is still not met; the hope of gaining her recognition is crushed once again.

Validate your needs and emotions

To regulate the emotions resulting from an unmet ideal, validating the feelings and taking authentic ownership of the underlying need is essential. It is normal to feel disappointed in a relationship context, but we can also offer ourselves what we need, such as kindness, recognition, or motivation.

Example: The anger and sadness resulting from being criticized by the attachment figure is normal. The need to receive encouragements and warmth is valid. Being able to validate the emotions and needs will lower the emotional activation and meet that need internally (e.g., “I am allowed to feel this way, I can recognize my own achievements”). 

Practice differentiation

The difficulty of a loved one meeting our ideals and needs is often mostly related to them and not entirely to us. Because of their limits, experiences, and requirements, sometimes they cannot meet our ideals. Practicing healthy differentiation, or recognizing what belongs to them and what belongs to us, can help mitigate negative emotions.

Example: The mother is very harsh on herself, not celebrating her positive actions and attributes – therefore, it is hard for her to do it for others. Her tendency to be overly-critical towards others belongs to her self-critique and does not reflect others’ worth or abilities.

Enjoy the good you can get

It is often not because some needs and ideals are not met that the whole relationship is negative. After validating emotions, identifying and meeting underlying needs, and differentiating from the other, it is much easier to feel good from the interaction.

Example: Even if the mother is critical, she is caring and warm in other ways, such as cooking for the family, playing with her grandchildren, often calling, sending thoughtful gifts, etc. The one critic hurts, but it does not represent the entirety of the relationship. 

Assert needs and limits to others

At times, asserting needs and limits is necessary to maintain a healthy relationship and to be able to connect with the other. Talking with “I” statements when we are emotionally calm can help us get what we need from the discussion and offer an occasion for repair.

Example: Point out that the remark made a few days ago was hurtful, and what was wanted was encouragement. Doing so can help get support from the mother and cause her to reflect on her tendency to be overly-critical. 

In summary, navigating complicated relationships can be difficult – especially during the holidays. Taking the time and space to reflect and adjust our own internal experience can positively impact our well-being and interpersonal relationships we deeply value. If you need support to learn how to cope with complicated relationships in your life, professionals at CFIR can offer support and possibly help you move towards repairing them.

Dr. Karine Côté, D.Psy., C.Psych. is a psychologist at the Centre for Interpersonal Relationships (CFIR). Dr. Côté provides psychological services to individual adults and couples experiencing a wide range of psychological and relationship difficulties related to mood and anxiety disorders, trauma, eating disorders, sleep disruptions, and interpersonal betrayal. She works from a humanistic approach and integrates therapeutic techniques from gestalt and object relations psychotherapies, emotion-focused therapy (EFT), and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).