Oh, the Christmas spirit! The silver shining bells, heartwarming copious meals, fairy lights and drinks by the fire… We all love Christmas, right? If only!
Unfortunately, together with all the festive songs and colorful socks, most of us also get another present – the traditional visit of that relative/friend/coworker whose only check off list is to be the biggest killjoy ever.
You know who I am speaking about, for sure. I am referring to that uncle who comes all the way from his little village in the countryside just to let you know your homemade gravy is dry over dinner, or that lovely friend who will create a wave of drama because, in her opinion, your party dress looks better than hers and she is not engaged yet… Seasonal classics, right?
Now, if you are lucky enough maybe you will be able to avoid that person this year and simply enjoy the holiday. For others, though, things might not be that easy. Maybe the person is a close relative, maybe your best friend or significant other.
The problem with the conventions about Christmas is that society expects us to be generous, even at the expense of our own well-being -which frequently translates into seasonal anxiety.
What to do when you are between a rock and a hard place, then?
Well, you could wait until someone forwards your stocking to you, yell “Dobby is a free elf” and run for your life. It could be slightly impolite and maybe not very sophisticated, though.
I have experienced this myself frequently too. Most of my Christmas since my husband and I became expats five years ago have been just us, and we like it that way too. We are relaxed people, who love to celebrate at home and not to over-stress about our social agenda. However, we have got family and friends we also love to visit and this is when things can go wild: mix up a narrow time to schedule all your social events and a bunch of people who do not necessarily know or like each other, and voilá – here you go, your own Netflix festive drama.
As years pass by and I become older but also (I HOPE) a bit wiser, I have developed a few strategies to keep my mental health intact, no matter what. The main concept they all articulate around is quite simple: you need to be a bit selfish. Some people will simply frown upon this thought but I do not care. Sometimes you need to take care of yourself first.
There are no universal rules here I can provide you with, but I will attempt to help you with some tips that work for me most of the times. I hope they truly help you wherever you are.
To me, the first and more important step is to identify the enemy.
Knowledge is power, and if you know who you are dealing with, there are more chances you make it. Is your brother-in-law a misogynist who will spend the night making ladies jokes? Is your colleague a complete moron who makes everyone at the Christmas party to feel miserable? Identify the criminal and then choose the best strategy to deal with him/her.
Now, in my opinion, the next basic step when it comes to surviving a toxic environment is to choose your battles wisely.
As I previously said, the problem is society expects generosity from us on the festive period, but this can be used by some people as an excuse to abuse others and expect no aftermaths. I usually make a decision based on the type of person I am confronting: are we speaking about someone who does not think twice, who drinks too much prosecco during Christmas dinner, or a narcissistic who enjoys hurting others?
It might look like this is a superfluous detail, but believe me: it is not.
It can mean the difference between an unfortunate conversation and a catastrophic scene.
I will illustrate it with a personal example: many moons ago, during some Christmas drinks with friends, a girl who I did not know very well casually commented my dress was almost a bit too glittery. Since I do not take things personally, I replied it was actually no such a thing like too glittery in Christmas. We both laughed and everything was left behind (or so I thought). But that night she also said my makeup was a bit too much, and the way I used the cutlery was peculiar… I was quite shocked by the subtle insistence of this woman who I barely knew to make unpleasant comments to me. Why, in the name of God, was she behaving like the ultimate evil queen?
Later, I had the chance to know her a bit better, and I realized the reason she repeatedly tried to tease me that very first night was her clinical narcissism – since I dared to outface her, in her opinion I needed to be punished.
Narcissists, you see, are not well-meaning loudmouths but people whose personality is based on one single idea: they are always right and their whole self-esteem depends on the perception others show to them. They need to be praised publicly and any behaviour they perceive as threatening must be punished. Also, they can use the pain they inflict as emotional fuel.
So what do you do when you find yourself trapped on a social event and you realize you are the target?
This is the most important advice I can actually give you: Do NOT take it personally.
It is not about you, is about them. They are going to look for a reason to represent drama, no matter what. So do not help them by showing you are offended. Since they can use your reaction as a source of gratification, try to take a step back and keep your mind cool and clean as much as possible.
A valid strategy can be to switch the topic of the conversation. But if the person persists, maybe you should consider initiating a different chat with someone else.
I will not lie – sometimes toxic people do not react to this strategy and insist on their behaviour.
If redirecting the attention focus to something else does not help, maybe it is time to introduce someone else in the chat, preferably someone who does not belong to the immediate social circle of the narcissist.
Usually, they need to keep a facade of kindness in front of strangers, so this can immediately interrupt the negative feedback.
If for some reason none of the aforementioned strategies proves helpful, please always have an emergency plan. If it is necessary in order to preserve your mental balance, you can even use what I humorously call extraction protocol. In case you missed it, in the context of military tactics language extraction makes reference to the process of rescuing someone when considered imperative that the subject is immediately relocated out of a hostile environment and taken to a secure area. In other words, time to play Dobby and to become a free elf.
There are several action lines you can follow here: get an emergency contact who can pick you up last minute if required, pretend you are late to that super important meetup or establish a security word to leave the place with your significant other (my personal favourite). Whatever you do, do not feel guilty. You tried your best and there is no need to be someone else mat. Simply keep calm, and leave the place as soon as possible. You will feel better in no time, I promise.
At the end of the day, please remember one thing only: the most important gift you can be given in Christmas is respect, love, and mental peace. Do not feel obligated to remain in a toxic environment in behalf of the festive spirit.
You truly matter.