Blog: insights from Dr. Keren Sofer

Navigating Holiday Gatherings

Given all the stressors of the past few years, seeing and connecting with family this holiday season may be a welcome relief. For others, it is an overwhelming and anxiety-inducing prospect. Whatever end of that continuum you fall on, one thing is certain – the pandemic has amplified so much in our relationships: the good, the bad and the ugly.

For those of us who are dreading the in-person or virtual holiday gathering, how can we endure and get through it intact, and maybe even find some positive in it? Below are some tips and tricks to empower you to take care of yourself and set healthy boundaries as you go into the holidays.


According to Kristin Neff, Ph.D., the foremost researcher on the topic, self-compassion refers to a constellation of attitudes and behaviors that include practicing self-kindness, seeing your pain as human and justified, and mindfully acknowledging your experience. You can never have too much self-compassion.

It is important to remember that you did not create the conflict or cause the dysfunction in your family of origin. Keeping that in mind and activating self-compassion will help protect you from distress or self-blame.

Self-compassion does not mean you are not justified in feelings of hurt, anger or sadness when it comes to past experiences or current conflicts with your family. Instead, it means acknowledging those painful wounds to yourself and feeling entitled to love and care. We are often not fully aware of how harsh we can be with ourselves. This quiz can give you an overview of how self-compassionate you are and how to improve your capacity for it.

Process Not Content

One of the ways we get caught in the emotional heat of conflict is when we focus on who said what, when, and to whom. This can lead to a negative place of needing to get the last word in, insisting on being right, or getting stuck in outrage and aggravation. Focusing on process not content allows you to watch negative interactions unfold and make the choice to observe rather than participate.

The beauty of this focus is that it helps us maintain some emotional distance, so we don’t get pulled into a hypervigilant state of mind where we might personalize comments or non-verbal communications. For example, you might recognize that within your family, there is a pattern of a particular family member baiting others with a controversial opinion, and predictably, certain others get angry and from there the tensions rise.

By stepping back and naming the pattern to yourself, you have a better chance of keeping your equilibrium in check and not adding fuel to the conflict. You can let go of feeling responsible for how others are behaving, which is another way to practice self compassion.

Validate, Empathize and Reflect

When dealing with hostility, dismissiveness or just general negativity from family members, keep your ear open for opportunities to offer validation and reflect that back. It sounds counterintuitive but nothing disarms others like validation and empathy. Remember, validation and empathy do not mean agreement – rather, an empathic response signals that you are understanding the other person’s perspective and feelings.

So, when Uncle Joe keeps ranting and raving about politics or taxes, reflecting how frustrated or annoyed he feels tells him you see his pain. This will calm him down and give you an opportunity to move the subject along to something else. Social psychology research shows that arguing facts with someone you disagree with actually leads to each of you doubling down on your positions rather than being convinced to change your minds.

To Keep in Mind

While there is no magic potion for creating a loving and cohesive family gathering, these tips might help you feel more prepared and able to weather whatever unfolds. Your ability to stay anchored in self-compassion and focused on process rather than content might even have the added benefit of making an impression on others around you, helping them stay anchored and kind.