Always fighting with family during Chinese New Year? Here's how to keep your cool
Do family reunion dinners and visits end up with you being in a foul mood? What causes that and is there a way to calm down after being asked why you’re still single for the nth time?
Nobody knows how to push your buttons like your family does. Think about it: You’d probably let a “tsk” from a stranger or friend slide. You might glare back, but that’s about it. When it comes from a family member though, that “tsk” can start a spat.
Why are comments from family members so triggering? That's because they are often aimed at your character, said Dr Chua Siew Eng, a consultant and specialist in psychiatry at Raffles Counselling Centre.
It can feel particularly biting if the comment references something you did long ago. Such comments can feel personal because they make you feel as if you haven't changed for the better.
Other reasons that irritate you may be "cultural, gender or generation-related" practices imposed on you, "especially when you feel that such practices may not be necessary or appropriate now", said Kevin Beck, the principal psychologist from Singapore General Hospital's Department of Psychology.
You may also find yourself blowing your top at family members more because you don't have to use “conventional social filters used for friends, colleagues and strangers", said Dr Chua. And sometimes, you’d think that anger is a "justified emotional response" if you feel hurt or betrayed, she added.
Another reason for allowing yourself to lose your cool is precedence, said Beck. Simply put, you’ve lost your temper before “and the family had accepted the behaviour”.
It may not just be your immediate family whom you find irksome – extended family can sometimes push your buttons the wrong way. “The more you are concerned with him judging you, the more his comments will affect you,” said Dr Lim Boon Leng, a psychiatrist from Gleneagles Hospital.
That explains why your favourite uncle’s comments about your (insert relationship status, financial standing and/or job title here) hurt you more than your cousin-in-law’s at reunion dinner.
HOW TO COOL DOWN
The more important or sensitive the issue is to you, the more intense your anger response may be, said Beck. But he also noted that "an anger stimulus for one person may not generate the anger response for another person".
While you can't control stimuli such as Third Aunt’s mouth when she goes into her my-daughter-is-a-genius monologue or change other people’s behaviour, you can learn to control your reactions.
To do that, Dr Chua and Cecilia Chu, a psychologist at Raffles Counselling Centre, said to look out for "early warning signs" in you, including tension, palpitations, shaking, sweating, flushing, increasing level of annoyance, and/or rising intensity of your argument or volume of voice.
These are "worth taking pause, deciding not to react, and calm down", said Dr Chua.
Here are some tips from the experts to help you spend CNY as amicably as possible:
- KEEP THE INTERACTION SHORT
If it's the reunion dinner, avoid a lengthy meal, said Dr Chua, who also suggested keeping your visits as short and simple as possible. "Have a few neutral topics to distract and entertain, and help time to pass."
- REHEARSE SCENARIOS THAT ANGER YOU BEFORE YOU GO VISITING
Learn to identify the negative thoughts or thinking pattern that leads to you being angry, advised Dr Lim. Challenge the validity of these thoughts and know that they are ultimately not useful to you. Then, practise these principles persistently in your life, he said.
“For the coming CNY, it may be useful for you to anticipate the situations, people and things that may be said that will trigger you. You can spend some time rehearsing those scenarios in your mind and think about how you can react to them in a way that is healthy and useful for you, and pre-empt those situations this way,” he said.
- DON'T GET TRIGGERED
Anticipate the anger cues and don't let yourself be triggered by them, especially with past resentments or slights, said Beck. "Try to understand and see the issue from the other person’s perspective. If that is not possible, be assertive."
For instance, state that this is not the right time or venue for such a discussion, and adjourn the discussion to another time. "Being assertive immediately reduces the anger trigger," he said. If that doesn't work, walk away to calm down.
- PLAY THE DELAY TACTIC
Take a few deep breaths and try to reduce your anxiety by bringing in your rational mind, suggested Professor Ilene Cohen on Psychology Today. If your pushy aunt asks you why you’re still single, make a joke.
If you’re too agitated, just say you’ll talk about it later. That will give you time to relax and think about how you want to deal with the situation if you want to talk about it at all, she said.
Or try saying something neutral and non-informative, advised Chu, such as "it’s a happy occasion; let’s not get into this now", and then change the topic to something less sensitive. "Not engaging in a difficult topic is also a valid response," she said.
- WHAT WOULD OBI-WAN KENOBI DO?
If you’re a movie buff, tap on your memory of your favourite character for inspiration, suggested David Allan, editorial director of CNN Health and Wellness. Think of a cool, calm and collected pop culture icon such as James Bond, Ellen Ripley, or Obi-Wan Kenobi.
“What would the most diplomatic, logically thinking version of yourself do next? Do that,” he said. “Think beyond the annoyance, or annoying person, and focus on your own behaviour. By thinking of how you can be a model for grace under pressure, you help yourself to become one.”
- YOU DON'T ALWAYS HAVE TO AGREE WITH YOUR FAMILY
“We think that we should agree all the time and get along in order to be a nice, functional family,” said Prof Cohen. “However, there’s no rule that says you have to get along with everyone in your family all the time. Being related doesn’t mean you’ll get along in every situation, share the same political views, or even enjoy each other's company.”
Her advice? Be kind and respectful, but don't force yourself to neglect your views out of fear that someone else will have a different opinion. “Be strong enough to excuse yourself if a conversation gets out of hand, and spend more time with your favourite cousins or siblings,” said Prof Cohen.