Coping with Challenging People and Situations During the Holidays

Coping with Challenging People and Situations During the Holidays


Will you be facing some challenging people or situations as you celebrate the holidays this year?

Holiday celebrations can be joyful, but they can also be stressful when we encounter “difficult” people and more demands on our time, energy, and finances. Often there are unspoken expectations or traditions that we feel obligated to participate in, leaving us feeling resentful if we comply or guilty if we don’t.


Make a plan to deal with challenging people and situations

Arming yourself with coping strategies is a great place to begin. You can find some tips for coping with holiday stress here, here, and here. To get the most out of stress management strategies such as these, I recommend taking it a step further and making an action plan so you’re prepared for the specific holiday stressors that you’re likely to encounter. Creating a plan to cope with challenging people and situations during the holidays can help you reclaim your power and feel in control.


Anticipate challenges

We can’t, of course, predict the future, but often we can reasonably anticipate challenging situations based on what’s happened in the past.  Anticipating challenges doesn’t mean we have to dwell on them or let them ruin our holidays. Being realistic allows us to problem-solve ahead of time.

Planning questions:

What challenging people or situations are you anticipating during the holidays?

What specifically makes these people or situations challenging?


Focus on how you want to behave

We also can’t control how others behave, so trying to get them to behave as we want them to is generally a futile (and frustrating) exercise. Our power is in being able to control our own behavior.


If you’re anticipating a challenging Christmas dinner with your mother who can be offensive and outspoken, think about how you want to behave in this situation. You don’t want to get distracted by all the things you dislike about your mother’s behavior; instead, focus on yourself.


The same is true if your challenge is to eat in moderation and avoid sugar at holiday parties. You can’t control what other people serve, but you can control what you eat and what you bring to the party. Making a plan for how you’ll behave at a party – especially as it pertains to what you’ll eat and drink – increases the odds that you’ll behave in a way that feels good to you.

Planning questions:

How do you want to behave in this challenging situation?

How can you remain true to your standards, values, and goals?

What can you do to prepare yourself to handle this situation BEFORE it happens?


Be prepared for the unexpected

We all know that even with an excellent plan, unexpected challenges may still catch us off guard. Many people find it helpful to keep a list of some “emergency” coping strategies in their pocket or on their phone for quick reference.

Here are some ideas for coping strategies that may be helpful:

• Excuse yourself from an uncomfortable conversation.
• Keep the conversation light and on “safe” subjects (avoid controversial topics like politics, religion, and money).
• Count to 10 and take a few deep breaths before saying or doing anything.
• Repeat an encouraging mantra in your head such as “I can handle this” or “setting boundaries is a healthy form of self-respect.”
• Ask for help.
• Go to the bathroom, splash water on your face, slowly breath in for the count of 4 and out for the count of 4 (repeat), collect your thoughts.
• Use an “I statement” to calmly and kindly express your feelings and needs.
• Leave early.

Planning questions:

What other coping strategies can you use if things get stressful?

What strengths do you have that will help you cope?


You need extra self-care during times of stress

In addition to planning ahead and taking care of ourselves during difficult times, we need to give ourselves self-compassion and lots of TLC following a challenging situation. Spending time with “toxic” or challenging people and navigating high-stress situations takes a lot of physical and emotional energy. It’s normal to need to replenish your energy with self-care activities such as rest, exercise, relaxing, spending time with positive people, spending time alone, journaling or reflecting. When we make time for such activities, we acknowledge that these situations are stressful – and they’d be stressful for anyone – and we shouldn’t expect ourselves to be unaffected; we need to help ourselves recover.

Planning question:

How will you take care of yourself AFTER a challenging situation?


Plan holiday activities that bring you joy

The final piece of our plan for coping with challenging people and situations is to focus on and plan enjoyable activities. I strongly believe in setting boundaries and declining invitations to gatherings or events that are likely to be highly stressful or painful. However, I also know that not everyone is ready to set those boundaries and that many gatherings are a mixture of stress and fun. So, if you’re choosing to attend (or feel that you truly can’t decline) a difficult holiday gathering, be sure that you’ve also got things on your calendar that will bring you joy during the holidays.

Planning questions:

What’s something that you’re looking forward to during the holidays?

What’s one thing that you can do to make this holiday more enjoyable for yourself?


Free Coping with Challenging People and Situations Worksheet

If you’d like a free PDF copy of the Coping with Challenging People and Situations Worksheet, just click below to download one.

Download Worksheet

Coping with the Holidays Free Worksheet 


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©2017 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved.

Sharon Martin, a licensed counselor and psychotherapist in Northern California, specializes in helping adult children of alcoholics and others who struggle with anxiety, perfectionism, and self-criticism. She has a private psychotherapy practice in CA where she is available for online counseling. Sharon is also the author of The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism and write the blog Conquering Codependency for Psychology Today.

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