by Abby Wahl
Holidays can be joyous, a time of year we look forward to celebrating. They can also be difficult to navigate, filled with anxiety and certain people we come to dread. Over the years I have had to learn to deal with difficult people and situations. I have found that some people we love the most can love us the worst. Learning to navigate the holiday season takes a special measure of grace. Today I am sharing some practices and principles I use when preparing my heart and mind for this wonderful season with family and friends.
I am choosing to be vague because I want to share solutions rather than specifics of my own life. I am not trying to be guarded but carefully present some of the principles I have learned and practiced, while honoring the privacy my own family, even though they will never read this.
- Pray. I cannot emphasize this enough. Difficult people are challenging enough on normal days, and holidays can amplify both expectations and disappointments. We need to pray for family, for our own tendencies to react badly, and to be a grace giving follower of Christ. God will never leave us or forsake us. He carries us through and will use these difficult times for our good and for our sanctification.
- Make a plan. For years I implemented the buddy system with certain family members. When alone this person acted differently, said unkind things and was very critical of me, my marriage, and my choices. So I planned to visit when someone could come along as a buffer. They didn’t like this, they often tried to corner me and demand to spend time one-on-one but it wasn’t a healthy option for me. I also made a list of what I am no longer available for. This list includes/has included: topics of controversy, listening to gossip or criticism about other family members, listening to suggestions that I should parent, correct, fix other family members, or being an emotional dumping ground.
- Set a budget, not just financial but for time spent with others. Cross off days when you are not available. We can accommodate schedules and spend time with family members but certain days, my own immediate family is unavailable for functions. Sticking to the budget and our plan removes impulsive behaviors. It strengthens our self-control and discipline. It enables long-term freedom rather than the momentary rush. As we practice integrity, keeping our word to ourselves and others, we gain self-respect and the respect of others. Even when they try and push us, standing firm has lasting impact. I don’t regret sticking to the budget, but I have regretted impulse purchases made because of pressure. I have also regretted staying longer than we planned for and being roped into more than originally stated.
- Communicate clearly, calmly, and consistently. People who do not have boundaries also don’t respect the boundaries of others, because they don’t know they exist. Remaining calm is essential. Repeating yourself and practicing difficult conversations helps with clarity and remaining calm. Consistency is needed because people without boundaries often try many different approaches to change plans, increase expectations, and manipulate situations.
- Set boundaries, not expectations. Do not let the root of bitterness grow. So often anger and bitterness come from hurt and disappointment. When family doesn’t act the way they “should,” forgive them. Don’t let them walk all over you, do stand firm in your beliefs, but forgive them and move forward. Don’t get stuck in the muck and the mire. Bless them, rejoice with them, weep with them, pray for them. So often they do not know what they do.
- Be prepared to walk away. It is tough, but sometimes necessary to get up and take your family out the door. I have packed up my kids and as calmly as I could and drove away. I told them I would not have my children around this type of behavior. I have also ended phone conversations when irrational thoughts and emotions are running high. I use the phrase, “I cannot have this conversation with you right now” or “I would be happy to have this conversation with you when you are calm and in control, but I will not tolerate being yelled at, good bye.” I keep my voice calm and level and I hang up. If they call back, I do not answer until I have prayed and talked to my husband or someone I trust that is aware of the situation.
As I have practiced setting and maintaining boundaries with the difficult people in my life, they have started to respect them more and more. As a result, my relationships have improved and not just with my more challenging family members.
When I started learning and practicing healthy boundaries, I learned to respect the boundaries of others more fully as well. It has improved my relationships with my husband and children. We are more respectful and hopefully more self-controlled.
This doesn’t mean that there aren’t still big issues, but as I am growing and changing my patterns of thinking and behavior, I am able to be less reactionary. The hard truth is that I was always a part of the problem. Now that I am no longer actively engaging in the problems, I get to work on problem solving. I get to take responsibility for my part (and only my part) and if needed, repent, confess and ask for forgiveness.
Over and over we are told (and know but somehow get temporary amnesia when it comes to difficult people) that we are only able to have self-control and trying to change others doesn’t work. Controlling others through manipulation, fear, threats, anger, guilt, gifts and passive-aggressive comments is the opposite of what we are called to in Christ.
When I act in accordance to God’s Word I let go of my selfish pride, my “righteous” anger, my easily offended feelings. I, instead, act in love, regardless of the challenging people or situation. I act with self-control, and I keep my dignity. I honor and glorify God by obeying His commands to love one another, forgive, and speak the truth in love. This takes practice and long-suffering patience, confession and grace, for myself and others.
Reading through Colossians recently I was reminded that God understands our struggles, he knows what we are dealing with and He sustains us no matter the situation.
“In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.” Colossians 3:1-10
He tells us how to act and deal with people too:
“Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” Colossians 3:12-17
Apart from God, I could not and would not have been able or willing to love, forgive and have functional relationships with certain people. Over and over God has carried (felt like dragging sometimes) me through hard seasons. It always has a purpose, even when I don’t recognize it or understand His purpose. He is called the Redeemer and I have experienced this over and over. Redeem means to save, to atone, to gain or regain, recover, to fulfill, to make amends and make restitution.
Even if the earthly relationships haven’t been completely transformed, I can rest in his promise that “He makes everything beautiful in its time.” Ecclesiastes 3:11
Turn to Christ when challenges arise, praise God when things go well and rejoice when you are suffering and given the opportunities to be self-controlled.
Hide God’s Word in your heart.
Remember God’s words from 1 John 4:
“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.
By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.” 1 John 4: 7-21
May the love of God indwell in you and your cup run over with love this season.
Tidings of comfort and joy.