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The table is set, friends and family are drawing closer, and you already know what comments or questions are about to come your way.
Perhaps the comments are about food, your weight, money, relationships, career, or children—whatever the topic, the position you are in is not uncommon.
For many people, the holidays aren’t necessarily the happiest of times — often because we anticipate conflict or inappropriate interrogation, Dr. Roseann Capanna-Hodge, a Connecticut-based psychologist.
But instead of silently seething or thrashing about, she recommends setting boundaries, she said.
Setting boundaries might seem like the start of a struggle, but it’s just a way to communicate what your needs are and what you’re okay with, said Kami Orange, a boundary coach from southern Utah.
Boundaries are tough, however, and it takes some preparation to know how to react rather than react to protect your feelings, Orange added. Here’s how to get started this holiday season.
The first step is to make a plan, said therapist Jennifer Rollin, founder of the Eating Disorder Center in Rockville, Maryland.
Before meeting, think about what your needs are and what a friend or relative might say that would trigger you, she added.
“Make up your mind, these are comments that trigger me, and these are some things I would say about that,” Rollin said.
It can also be helpful to identify your goals for the evening, Capanna-Hodge said. You may not be able to help everyone get along, but you can be successful in spending time with your aunt, who you don’t see often, or playing games with your nephew, she added.
“You’re not going to solve 30 years of family problems at the Thanksgiving or Christmas table,” Capanna-Hodge said.
But you can still contain conflict by making a list ahead of time of safe topics to redirect to when the conversation turns to an issue that might be tense, Capanna-Hodge said. And having a pre-holiday conversation about what you will or won’t talk about can also be helpful.
Try to be gentle by using “I” statements like “I can’t talk about this topic when we meet because I’m uncomfortable” — that way your response will sound less accusatory, she added .
And don’t be afraid to have a little fun with it. Maybe make a jar that people have to toss money in when the taboo subjects are mentioned, or make a bingo board with your partner or siblings that you can check off with a laugh if someone says something inappropriate, Capanna-Hodge said .
You can download a bingo board here and fill in the blanks with the comments that await you. Or you can take a screenshot and mark it up on your phone.
Whether critical or well-intentioned, comments about the weight or what’s on your plate can spark, Rollin said.
“It’s important to restate it for yourself and realize that the comments people make about food and weight say a lot more about the person commenting than they do about you,” she said. “Often people who are self-focused on their own bodies and eating habits are more likely to comment.”
You can be direct by saying something like, “I understand you’re excited about your diet, but I’m working to heal my relationship with food, so let’s not talk about it,” Rollin said.
Or you can be more playful with questions about losing weight with “I’m just grateful that my body does so much for me every day” or “I don’t know. I don’t focus on my weight.”
And if the body-shaming conversation continues or you don’t feel comfortable saying something, feel empowered to excuse yourself from the conversation, Rollin said.
With comments about your love life — or lack thereof — Orange says she likes to give the questioner two chances. The first time, she suggests redirecting the conversation to something they enjoy talking about.
The second time, you can use a response like “If I find out, I’ll let you know” to indirectly and gently indicate that you don’t want to continue the conversation, Orange said.
If you’re talking to someone one-on-one (don’t try to do this in front of a group), you can try to stem future conversations about the topic by addressing them directly, she said.
Orange suggests setting a limit with a phrase like: “I know your intention was (X), but unfortunately the effects of (Y) have made me very uncomfortable, so please don’t do this in the future .”
For bonus points, redirect them to what they can do instead, which helps, Orange said.
Comments about marriage or adding a family can really add to the pressure, but often they come from a place of love and excitement, Orange said.
Start forwarding with a nice comment and new conversation like, “I love how much you love love and you want everyone to be as happy together as you are. Remind me how did you meet Uncle Gary?” ” She said.
But sometimes, even when the intention is good, the effect hits a painful spot — for example, when someone asks a person with infertility problems how they can expand their family.
When trying to conceive, first talk to your partner about how open you want to be and with whom, said Rachel Gurevich, a registered nurse and fertility author.
Then you can end the conversation with either a direct statement like “I don’t really want to talk about that” or a bit of humor like “Well, you don’t want to know something personal like that,” she said.
Or, if you trust those who ask, you can open up and ask for the support you need, Gurevich said.
Some people can speak diplomatically about politics, religion, and other sensitive issues—some can’t.
But how do you end conversations that go too far?
Sometimes people are looking for a fight, but that doesn’t mean you have to join in, Orange said. If possible, ignore the comments or redirect by breaking out the cake, Capanna-Hodge said.
If you need to address an eager attitude, you can address it directly with something like, “We’re not on the same page and I’m sure none of us will change our minds tonight, so why not?” Aren’t we talking about something else?” Or keep it short: “I see it differently.”
What if you’ve tried all of these statements and you’re still not having a good time?
“Sometimes physically removing yourself from a situation is the best line,” Orange said.
It doesn’t have to be a blast — you could even decide ahead of time to make up an excuse that will allow you to leave as soon as it’s no longer fun, she added.
“Holiday is about connection, and if that connection feels awful, it doesn’t have to happen,” Capanna-Hodge said.