CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It that time of year for those Norman Rockwell family get-togethers. Start your engines.Extended family gatherings can hold such an emotional charge -- and for good reason. Expectations are high, bandwidth is low and most of us have been rushing around for weeks in preparation for these few days.Throw in exhaustion from travel and disruption of routines for the kids and grandkids for a well-rounded recipe of potential letdowns.Even the most close-knit families fall prey to these stressors. So, how can you put your own oxygen mask on?First of all, manage your expectations. Rather than thinking you can change the entire family dynamic, look at some baby steps. You can't control the actions of others in the equation, especially that pesky relative who gets on your very last nerve.The only thing you can control is your reaction to the curveballs that may be thrown at you. Stay focused on your overall outcome -- a peaceful, harmonious connection. And choose your battles. Here's some ammunition, two simple rules to keep in mind.Surviving (and thriving) during holiday gatherings
1. Don't take anything personally.2. Don't make assumptions.
Easier said than done, right? How can you not take it personally when Cousin Joe throws a salvo over the mashed potatoes? Be prepared with some phrases to defuse any volatile situations that may come up.My favorite phrase consists of four simple words that work like a charm. The phrase is very simple, although it can have the powerful effect of disarming the other person. "You may be right" is the phrase.Hold on. Doesn't that send the message that I'm caving in and backing down on my principles? No, because I'm only allowing for the possibility that the other person may be right. I'm not saying that he or she is right. See the distinction?Rather than igniting a spark, the salvo is defused. The other person hears the possibility that they may be right, rather than a protest to debate. And, yet, you haven't actually given up any ground. Pass the sweet potatoes, please.Here is another defusing statement to consider using: "Looks like we have different perspectives on that; I hadn't thought of it that way."
And if it absolutely galls you to give up even an inch, consider this statement by philosopher Alan Watts to help reframe your perspective. "When we attempt to exercise power over someone else, we cannot avoid giving that person the very same power over us."
The important notion is to keep focused on your overall goal. Sometimes these family dynamics bring out old patterns, and we revert to previous roles in the family structure. How many of you have been told, "You change when you get around your parents/brother/sister"?And it's no wonder. Your biological family is functioning out of its own memories of you. Maybe they only see you occasionally, so they're not aware of your current roles, responsibilities and achievements. And that can be very frustrating.A probing question may seem intrusive to you, although the other person may just be trying to relate. And then there's the opposite end of the spectrum where your interests don't even come up. It's all about them.One of my favorite authors, Don Miguel Ruiz, does a great job of dissecting the disservice we do to ourselves when we take things personally. In his book "The Four Agreements," Ruiz makes a startling statement near the beginning: "Nothing anyone else does is because of you."Hmm. While that's a freeing concept, it's also puzzling. When someone directly insults you, how can you not take it personally? Ruiz explains that it's the way they see the world, and it comes from fear."Don't take anything personally, because by doing so you set yourself up to suffer for nothing," Ruiz says. "Humans are addicted to suffering at different levels and to different degrees, and we support each other in maintaining these addictions."
That's a pretty strong statement. Yet it could help to explain why we re-create the same patterns in our lives. If someone is not treating you with respect, it's a gift if they walk away. Sure, it will hurt for a while, but you'll eventually heal. Then you can make some different choices. Anger, jealousy and envy can dissipate. And sadness can diminish.A huge amount of freedom comes with not taking things personally. As you make this a habit, you'll find you won't need to place your trust in what others do or say. You'll only need to trust yourself.You're never responsible for the actions of others. You are only responsible for you. When you truly take this to heart, you set up a barrier that others can't penetrate with careless comments.On the flipside, we need to monitor our own tendencies to make assumptions about what others are doing or thinking. When we do this, we react to what we've projected -- and can end up blaming them."All the sadness and drama you've lived in your life was rooted in making assumptions and taking things personally," Ruiz says.Well, there you go. Pass the magic wand. While it's certainly a tall order to follow these two rules -- and we'll have setbacks -- creating an awareness and reminding ourselves of these principles can help to alleviate needless suffering. It's worth a shot -- during this stressful season and year-round.Remember to be gentle with yourself. Even if you can head off one or two volatile situations, that's a huge victory! Here's to more peace on earth -- and within ourselves.Linda Arnold, M.A., MBA, is a certified wellness instructor, counselor and chairwoman/CEO of The Arnold Agency, a marketing communications firm with offices in West Virginia, Montana and Washington, D.C. Reader comments are welcome and may be directed to Linda Arnold, The Arnold Agency, 117 Summers St., Charleston, WV 25301 or emailed to email@example.com.