How to improve relationships – with family members and others

The holidays with family – good times or bad times?

Traditional family gatherings can create a mixture of emotions and experiences – and not all of them are positive and feel good.

Spending more time than usually with family can be fun, it can build and strengthen feelings of love and connection.

But times of family reunions like the Christmas season, of course, can also include boring or uncomfortable rituals and customs – like long hours of eating, drinking and talking – and strict expectations about how we should behave and contribute to the celebrations. 

Old family stories, the good ones and the bad ones, can still effect the delicate network of feelings that link us with our close and also with the more distant family members.

Also, relationships between family members or between groups of relatives can change over time, they can improve but they can also deteriorate for various reasons.

We don’t feel close to and we don’t like everyone just because they are somehow related to us.

This might not be an issue during the year when we manage to avoid seeing them but it can become a problem if we are expected to spend a lot of time with them over the festive season.

What can we do to improve our relationships with ‘difficult’ family members?

Our thoughts determine the quality of our relationships with other people. What we think about a family member influences how we feel and act when we are with them.

If we think that a person ‘is difficult’ we will feel a certain type of emotion – like stress, defensiveness, frustration, judgement – which will lead to a certain type of behaviour – like trying to avoid that person, treating them with unfriendliness, reacting in a resentful way – which will most probably make our relationship and our encounters with that person difficult.

Gaining awareness is always the starting point for positive change

Before we can make any change to the better, we have to become aware of the thoughts we have about the person with whom we want to get on better.

And very often, gaining awareness of our thinking is actually all we need to open us up and create an understanding that allows us to change our thoughts, feelings and actions – and automatically the relationship will change.

A great technique to increase our self-awareness and our openness to see the other one in a more objective and neutral way is to deliberately focus our attention on the fact that there is a lot we have in common with the other person.

This technique (source: Jody Moore) is easy to apply and really helpful when we struggle or feel stuck in our relationship with another person.

A mind-opening question: In which ways is he/she just like you?

Instead of just thinking, ‘She is difficult’, we can ask ourselves: ‘In what ways is she like me?’

And when we answer this question honestly, we can easily see: ‘Yes, she is difficult in certain areas, like I am difficult in certain areas. She is just like me!’

EXAMPLE

Imagine this little scenario:

You are preparing the Christmas dinner.

Your sister joins you in the kitchen and very soon you are in a disagreement with her about how to cook a certain dish. If you are arguing and feeling defensive it’s probably because you are having thoughts like, ‘She is wrong, I am right. As always, she is not listening, she is not respecting my way of doing things.’

Now is the right time for you to stop and interrupt what’s going on in your mind by asking yourself, ‘ In what ways is she like me?’

It might be that there is a lot you share with your sister:

She has clear ideas about the preparation of the food – just like you.

She has opinions about the steps to be taken, and she gets confused if other people don’t see it her way – just like you. She wants validation and wants to be right – just like you.

She might be feeling disrespected – just like you.

Seeing all the ways your sister is just like you will help you feeling understanding and connected to her.

Give it a try 

– when you are feeling attacked or annoyed by people, of if you are feeling judgemental of people –

take a step back and deliberately appreciate all the areas where you are the same. It will get you to a more compassionate place. And to better relationships.

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What to do if mirroring others’ behaviours and attitudes doesn’t serve us

What is mirroring and how can we manage it intentionally?

Human beings are social beings and that’s why relationships with others impact our lives significantly.

We all crave connection and approval, we want and need to feel loved and valued by others, especially our family members and close friends.

As relationships are so important to us we want them to be good, and healthy, positive and enjoyable.

But – as we all know – relationships can be challenging and complicated in dynamics.

This is especially the case at times like the upcoming festive season when we come together with family members we haven’t seen for a while, and when we generally spend much more time together with our relatives than usually throughout the year.

We want to have a good time together and enjoy each other’s company.

A typical human way of building strong connections and greater understanding with someone else is to mirror the other person.

Mirroring happens subconsciously most of the time. We are usually not aware that we are replicating another person’s nonverbal signals, that we imitate their gestures, speech pattern, attitudes or moods.

The positive effects of mirroring each other

In many circumstances and situations, mirroring serves us well and there is no need to become more aware of our imitating actions and reactions. We don’t need to change what makes us feel good.

Imagine a situation like this one:

Your aunt is coming over for Christmas dinner. And she is apparently very happy to see you, she is lovely and kind, and smiling, and curious and asks you a lot of questions.

You’ll probably mirror her without even thinking about it: You direct your attention to your aunt, and start smiling, too, and you react and respond in a kind and friendly way, and show interest in her. The two of you have a lively conversation and feel connected and close to each other.

The negative effects of mirroring each other

Unconscious mirroring, though, can also create problems occasionally. And it seems that this happens especially in emotionally charged situations such as family gatherings.

We not only mirror positive good-feeling signals from others, we also mirror negative attitudes and behaviours.

If someone is critical or judgemental of us, our default reaction is to move into that same negative space. We tend to become critical and judgemental, too.

Imagine a scenario like this one:

You mother-in-law joins you in the kitchen while you are preparing the Christmas dinner. And she immediately starts criticising what you are doing, suggesting other – ‘better’ – ways of meal preparations, giving comments like ‘you never knew how to do this correctly, I’ll better do this’.

Your normal human behaviour will be to mirror her – you will begin to think and feel and act critical and judgemental of her. Additionally, you might judge yourself for criticising your mother-in-law for her judgements of you. Probably, the atmosphere at dinner will not be very easy-going and joyful.

How can we break the circle of mirroring?

As human beings, we have the ability to override our default mirroring settings, we can decide to stop mirroring the people around us.

Breaking the pattern requires awareness.

In many cases, just the awareness of it will help us to immediately just let go of the mirroring. 

In other cases, it requires special attention and effort to make changes, especially if the cycle of mirroring has been established a while ago and has become a habit for one (or both) people in the relationship.

We know what to expect especially in our most challenging relationships. We know what’s probably going to happen – and we can decide to no longer allow the automatic mirroring to happen!

It helps to be well prepared and intentional before we enter the situation that usually initiates the negative mirroring on one (or both) sides.

We take our time to find one helpful thought that we want to choose on purpose when the challenging encounter takes place next time.

And we memorise that thought. We practice it, again and again, until we are 100% sure that we will easily remember it when we’ll need it.

A powerful thought for the mother-in-law scenario described above could be:

  • My mother-in-law is critical and judgemental and that’s o.k. It’s all about her and has nothing to do with me. She can be critical – and I can be calm.
  • Or: O.k., she needs to be right all the time. I understand that. I don’t mind. I don’t need to be right all the time.
  • Or: Mirroring my mother-in-law is a choice. This year I choose not to mirror her. That’s actually a relief. I can show up as I want to.

What about you and your mirroring tendencies?

What are the situations and relationships that trigger your negative mirroring pattern?

What if you decided to get well prepared – choose a powerful thought and practice it! – and let go of the mirroring?

How could that positively change the ‘typical’ scenario?


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What do you want to think about your family

“Our families are opportunities for us to grow” (Brooke Castillo)


Are you aware of the thoughts you have about your (extended) family?

The importance of what we think and feel about our family relationships and how we act when we are with our family is not restricted to a certain time of the year, of course.

But what we think about family is especially important at the end of the year, or during other festive seasons, when most of us find themselves involved and engaged in an increased number of often very traditional family events and gatherings.

Our thoughts trigger our feelings which create our actions which finally create the results in our life.

So whatever we think about our family and the individual family members will cause what we feel and do when we are with them.

Consider these questions related to (your) family:

  • What does the word ‘family’ mean to you? What does it mean when you relate it to your family?
  • What do the various family roles like ‘mother’, ‘father’, ‘sister’, ‘brother’, ‘uncle’, ‘grandmother’, etc. mean to you? What do they mean when you relate them to your mother, your father, your sister, etc.?
  • What are the unquestioned obligations, traditions, expectations related to your family that deserve some questioning?

If you take the time to really think about it and to write down any thoughts coming up in your mind – are those thoughts something you consciously decided to think?

And do you like your thoughts? Do they feel good? Are they helpful and do they serve you and your relationships with family?

Now, when you go and attend a family event, like Christmas dinner with your family of origin, and you bring along your thoughts about your family and its members – do your thoughts create positive emotions and activities and experiences for you (and your family)?

Most people approach the festive season with a mixture of feelings: love and connection, excitement and anticipation, but probably also nervousness or stress, or boredom, or even  anxiety or resentment.

A recipe for successful relationships – Drop your expectations

Awareness and courageous decisiveness is all we need if we want to make positive changes, in any area of our life.

As soon as we become aware of our current thoughts and evaluate what we like or don’t like about them, we can decide what we want to think (and feel and do) in future.

We can’t control and change other people – if we expect family members to change their behaviour or if we expect them to change their expectations of us, we set ourselves up for disappointment.

But we have 100% control of our thoughts, feelings and actions.

And this means that we have control of our experiences – our experiences of the relationships we have with our family members and our experiences of the events we share with them.

So how do you want your experiences of the holidays with family to look like?

What do you most desire when it comes to family?

How do you want to experience the family gatherings and the time you share with each individual family member?

Make a plan and create a list of the things you want to think, feel and do to make this year’s holidays with family a success for yourself (and probably automatically also for others).

Consider these examples to get you going:

  • If your Aunt Mary always talks too much and you judge what she says as boring and try to avoid her – what could you think, feel and do instead to make the conversation with her more interesting for both of you?
  • If your Cousin Bertie always gets drunk and starts singing later in the evening – how could you drop your expectation of him remaining sober this year (why should he?) and just accept him as he is?
  • If your mother-in-law always criticises your food preparations – how could you change your thoughts about this so that you feel relaxed and calm whatever she says to you?
  • If your little nephews often get on your nerves because they are so noisy and demanding – which activities could you consider to suggest so that you feel connected with them and have fun while playing with them?
  • If you feel stressed and overwhelmed each year because of all the things you have to organise and manage – what type of support could you think of and how could you feel good about asking for help?
  • If your sister expects you always to try all her deserts and praise each of them – how could you prepare yourself so that you could react in a determined but kind way when you tell her that you no longer eat what you don’t want to eat?

Now it’s your turn!

Write down the thoughts you have about your extended family and the individual family members.

Then, as soon as you are more aware of your conscious and unconscious thoughts, start to make deliberate decisions about those that don’t serve yourself and your relationships with your family.

Decide to let them go and to choose thoughts that help you enjoy your relationships with your family – during the holidays and at other times of the year.  

Use the holidays with family as an opportunity to grow. 😊


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