Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner: 7 Family Personalities that Can Ambush Your Holiday Gathering
By M. Carolyn Miller
You know the scene. You’ve spent weeks planning for the special day – your family’s annual holiday gathering. You splurged on an organic bird big enough for leftovers. Aunt Sarah is bringing the dressing. Brother Bob is in charge of the bar. Even the kids have been assigned tasks.
And then, the special day comes. A Norman Rockwell painting it is not.
Your brother who likes to drink has one too many. Before dinner even starts, he explodes and leaves in a huff.
Your aunt, the educator, launches into a history lesson when engaged in conversation and your guests’ eyes glaze over.
And you, hurt by a sibling’s criticism, hide in the bathroom and cry.
It was supposed to be the perfect family holiday gathering! What happened?
“Your brains sets up a sort of template [from childhood] so that if the same stimuli come your way again, you’ll be prepared, even if only to cringe, or duck and cover,” notes Marsha Lucas, Ph.D. in Psychology Today.
These ancient templates can be triggered every time family assemble for holiday gatherings. And although often invisible, the related personalities that surface provide clues for how to manage them.
7 Family Personalities That Can Ambush Your Thanksgiving Feast
Personality No. 1: The Judge
The Judge is a perfectionist. He will criticize everything from the food —“What about the vegetarians?”—to the seat assignment—“You put Bob next to Aunt Lou?”
He can’t help it. It’s how he sees the world. And the person he is probably the hardest on is himself. Keep that in mind when he is dissing the old chairs you added to the table.
Personality No. 2: The Martyr
Every family has one. She is the one who cleans up the kitchen when everyone else is watching the football game. “No worries. I don’t mind. You go head and enjoy yourself.”
She speaks in code and her indirect communication implies that you should help. But she’d never say it. Your task then is to take her at her words. And when she says she’ll do the dishes, get yourself a piece of pie and snuggle into the couch.
Personality No. 3: The Bully
This personality thrives on shaming others. He will call out a nephew on his “lame” job despite an expensive college degree. He will tell an old family story that makes everyone laugh at the expense of a sibling.
This person can be mean, often without realizing it. He doesn’t know any better. After all, it’s what he learned as a kid. Bully others before they bully you (like he was).
Personality No. 4: The Gossip
This personality is confused. She thinks that talking about people is how you build emotional connections. So she shares what she knows, in whispers, about Uncle John’s money problems or a pregnant niece’s protruding tummy.
Be wary. While it is enticing to get involved in her game, often, gossip is nothing more than speculation, brought about by small minds that have little else to contribute.
In the words of Eleanor Roosevelt: “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.”
Personality No. 5: The Mansplainer
This title was originally attributed to a man who insisted on explaining his point of view to a woman, even when he didn’t know what he was talking about. In the holiday gathering context, however, it applies to any person who won’t shut up.
This personality as a child was, more than likely, told to keep quiet. Her opinion—and by extension, her self—had no value. So now, she is going to insist that you listen to her.
Little does she realize that her value diminishes the more she opens her mouth.
Personality No. 6: The Lush
This personality appears in multiple ways. It is the sister who insists on a drink when she walks in the door at 10 am to do prep, and is weepy by noon.
Or, it is the uncle who sloshes down cocktails while talking politics and explodes when someone doesn’t agree with him.
It can result too, in the happy drunk who falls asleep on the couch.
Whether over-imbibing is due to emotional self-medication or an inability to take control of oneself, it can lead to explosive anger and hurt feelings. But you can take precautions, be it by initiating a “no-alcohol-before-dinner” rule or enrolling others to help manage this person.
Personality No. 7: The Manipulator
This little trickster excels at indirect communication. He will give you the silent treatment when you displease him. She will “accidentally” ignore you, or fail to acknowledge you when everyone is gathered in the kitchen.
He will also subtly insult you, such as “Nice outfit but Jean’s outfit really compliments her figure, don’t you think?”
This personality wants you to be the fall guy and take the blame for what isn’t being said or done. Don’t. Most of all, don’t take anything this personality “says” in words and gestures personally. If you do, you fall prey to his/her strategy.
But, the good news is you aren’t necessarily stuck with these personalities!
Strategies to Derail Personality Ambushes
Here are three simple strategies you can use to derail personality ambushes during your family holiday gathering.
Strategy 1: Put Some Pre-Day Systems in Place
Prior to the holiday gathering, put some systems in place to minimize potential conflicts:
- Assign seats and tasks strategically
- Instill a no-alcohol rule
- Enlist co-conspirators to manage explosive personalities
- Avoid“hot” topics with dinner table games such as The Conversation Game by Psych Central, a mental health social network.
Strategy 2: Anchor Yourself in Personal Intentions
Set aside some early morning time on the day-of to create a “wish list” of personal intentions, be it that your Aunt Doris will be able to make it after all or that you’ll have a positive attitude all day.
Strategy 3: Maintain Gratitude
Remind yourself, throughout the holiday gathering, of the underlying motivations for often-unhealthy family personalities and find compassion, and gratitude for the crazy family you have.
About the Author:
M. Carolyn Miller, MA, is an award-winning writer and psychology junkie who lives, plays and love in Portland, Oregon. Check out her website at www.cultureshape.com.