mental health

Holiday stress? How to deal with tactless titas, toxic relatives this holiday season

Steph Arnaldo
Holiday stress? How to deal with tactless titas, toxic relatives this holiday season

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Dreading the annual 'tumaba ka' or 'bakit di ka pa kasal' questions? Here are the best ways to respond, and tip on how to set boundaries all year round.

MANILA, Philippines – Christmas isn’t always the season of love and joy for everyone. For others, it’s a time of holiday stress, anxiety, and a whole lot of dread.

Welcome to your annual holiday lunches with your nosy relatives, where you wait in fearful anticipation for that tactless tita’s annual tumaba ka! comments, or the judgey tito’s Bakit ‘di ka pa kasal? question. Maybe a relative has continuously overstepped your boundaries in the past, asking intrusive questions about your sexuality or religion. Maybe the season of gift-giving doesn’t bring you any ounce of holiday cheer at all – and that’s okay.

It’s common to feel “holiday anxiety” in the form of social anxiety, especially if you’ve already associated the season with a “less favorable” or even traumatic experience in the past, mental health organization MindNation told Rappler. This seasonal stress can come in mild or severe forms, and may escalate into more serious concerns as the season progresses, especially if not managed right away.

It is a slippery slope to be on – finding the middle ground of being respectful to your relatives, while also standing your ground and setting boundaries. Do I defend myself, or shut up and keep the peace? Just the internal decision-making alone can get very stressful; add in the suffocating environment of a family gathering and the pressure to respond, and you’ve got a recipe for holiday disaster, coupled with an extra spoonful of pre-event anticipatory anxiety.

So, what can you do when faced with relatives you don’t necessarily agree with, or even like? MindNation’s chief marketing officer, Cat Triviño said the first and most important step is to manage your expectations.

“Christmas may be a happy and enjoyable time for some, but for others, it can be a difficult time. Try not to expect too much. Having the ‘perfect’ Christmas or expecting everyone to be on their best behavior may be unrealistic,” she told Rappler. “Remember that it’s okay to say no – you don’t have to attend every event, Christmas party with family, or catch-up with friends.”

Keep the peace or say your piece?

As much as we want to avoid our sources of stress, many of us still choose to attend holiday events for various reasons. On the other hand, you may already be mentally ready and raring to go, armed with your planned retorts or witty quips to defuse awkward situations.

But we can’t always predict when and what it will take to “get triggered. When we feel “threatened,” our natural defense mechanism and first instinct as human beings is to feel anger. Cat said that it is valid to feel angry over rude questions, but this is where practicing the benefit of the doubt can come in handy.

“Sometimes, people ask things they shouldn’t because they’re bored, they’re curious, or they’re looking for intrigue. But it’s also possible that they just don’t know any better,” Cat said. What to do instead? It’s all about maintaining a balance of being honest, staying true to yourself, and trying to understand where the other is coming from.

Ask before answering

This means answering based on how you genuinely feel about the question, Cat advised. Some things you can do the next time someone asks you something that makes you squirm: First, determine the other person’s motives.  Ask questions in return, such as: “Why are you curious?” or “Why do you ask that?”

If the person is really persistent, ask: “Is there something going on in my life that you want to know more about?”

“These questions will help you understand the person’s intentions and guide you into making your next move, which is to answer, to decline, or to disengage. Chismis lang ba yan, or is it a genuine concern about what’s going on in your life?” Cat said.

Remember that most events and questions, by themselves, are neither positive nor negative. What makes them “good” or “bad” is how we perceive them, so there may not actually be any malice in the question being asked. Sometimes, suppressed feelings come to the surface when our ego feels threatened, or when a deep-seated insecurity is suddenly poked. Ask yourself why you perceive some questions as ‘intrusive’. What about those questions makes them ‘bad’ or ‘rude’ to you? Why do they make you uncomfortable?

Answer honestly

If you want to answer, go right ahead. Just make sure that answering is what you really want to do, and not just for the sake of being polite,” Cat said. Being polite is a common reaction, especially if the one asking is an older relative or a superior at work. Most of the time, we do so because we feel guilty or are being pressured. “Doing so will only take a toll on your mental health,” Cat added.

“There is a difference between answering politely and answering healthily. If you are polite (for example: you just give an uneasy laugh), the other person might not realize that their questions are inappropriate or are making you uncomfortable. They might keep asking it the next time you meet, which means you have to keep up the charade and bottle up your feelings, all of which could also affect your mental health later on,” Cat added. Honesty may feel uncomfortable at first, but it more often than not remains to be the best policy in the long run.

Decide to decline

If you would rather decline answering, make it simple and straight to the point.  Cat said to say things like: “Sorry I’m not comfortable answering that,” “I don’t want to talk about that,” or “Can we talk about something else? I’m not in the mood to talk about that.”

“There is no need to antagonize or fight with the person (i.e. “You’re so rude” or “That’s so offensive”) right away,” she added. Not all battles have to be fought; so pick them wisely. If the other person keeps pressing the issue, know that you have every right to disengage by walking away.

How to (respectfully) agree to disagree

Here are some buzzwords that are always at the forefront of recent heated debates: Politics. Religion. Divorce. LGBTQ+. COVID-19 vaccines. These topics can be very polarizing when brought up between colleagues, friends, and loved ones, so if you want to avoid getting into a full-fledged argument and maintain the “good relationship” you have with a relative, Cat says that sometimes the best course of action is to just agree to disagree.

“This means coming to an understanding that neither of you are going to change the other’s mind and expressing a willingness to move on,” she said. One way to do this is to communicate to understand, not to change minds. “Instead of saying right off the bat ‘No, you are wrong’ or ‘That’s such a crazy thing to think,’ ask ‘Why do you feel this way?’ or ‘What makes you think this way?’. Show respect and curiosity instead of judgment and condemnation.”

Next is to find common ground. What do both of you want to achieve? What final outcomes are you interested in? “Political differences, for example, can be rooted in a desire for better governance or protection of the family’s welfare; the issue of COVID19 vaccines, on the other hand, is about staying safe and healthy. While both of you may have different ideas on how to achieve these goals, choosing to focus on the why will make it easier to accept these differences.

Lastly, ask yourself what’s important. “Choosing to agree to disagree is easier said than done. But if the relationship is special to you, preserving it should trump your need to be right. At the end of the day, what’s more important to you – keeping the relationship or winning the argument? Is it campaigning for a candidate, or saving a relationship that has been there even before this candidate ever thought about running for a position?”

We don’t need to get into discussions we’re not comfortable with, or share our thoughts on matters both pressing and personal. We have the right to share what we want to share, and withhold what we want to. Make sure to not let the other person, whether intentionally or not, manipulate you into doing something you don’t want to do.

This is where setting healthy boundaries comes in. Boundaries exist to help protect your energy, safeguard your mental health, and at the very least, keep your relationships civil.

Boundaries are your best friends

“Boundaries are basic guidelines that people create to establish how others should behave around them, including what actions are okay, what are not, and how to respond if someone breaches those limitations. Whether you are interacting with a work colleague or a romantic partner, boundaries ensure that the relationship progresses smoothly and safely,” Cat said.

Any relationship – whether with a parent, friend, sibling, partner, boss, or co-worker – benefits from healthy boundaries. Good boundaries not only provide better emotional health and self-respect, they also ensure that the relationships we are in are mutually respectful, supportive, and caring.

However, there will always be instances when you encounter people who will make you feel that your boundaries are being violated and disrespected. These people will usually take offense at boundary-setting, and make it seem like it’s a personal attack against them.

Some examples of boundaries being crossed are a colleague who stands too close to you or touches you (physical boundary), a family member who constantly pressures you to do favors for them using the utang na loob card (emotional boundary), a boss who exhibits bullying tactics in the workplace (mental boundary), coercing you to work overtime.

A constant and complete disregard for your boundaries can leave you feeling confused, anxious, drained, and stressed when it comes to these “toxic relationships”. That’s why it is important to know how to firmly establish healthy boundaries in every relationship so that you will feel respected, safe, and valued. 

“When someone does something that makes you uncomfortable, let them know right away, using mindful communication whenever possible. Use “I” statements, such as “I feel __ when you do ____.” “This way, you are responding and not reacting to the emotions that you feel when your boundaries are pushed. Doing this does not put the other party on the defensive, and will hopefully lead to a conversation on what both of you can do to create a healthier boundary,” Cat said.

If all attempts at communication fail, a simple but firm “No” is always an option, anytime someone does something to you that you don’t like. “Do not feel that you need to explain. You have the right to determine what you want others to do or not do to you,” Cat added.

Setting boundaries, especially if you’re not used to doing so, will always feel uncomfortable at first. You may feel like you are stepping on others’ toes, or are wholly responsible for the other person’s emotional response. Cat says not to be concerned with what others will think.

“Know that if you break your own boundaries because you are scared of the other person’s reaction (especially that of a romantic partner), that is a huge red flag and deserves another topic of discussion altogether. In a healthy relationship, you should never feel afraid of the reactions of the other person,” she said.

Setting boundaries is all about “training” people to treat you the way you deserve to, and vice versa. “If you are always saying ‘yes,’ you are letting others know they have permission to walk all over you… When you respect and reinforce other people’s boundaries, it will be easier for you to respect and reinforce your own,” Cat added.

Establishing boundaries and communicating them to others will take effort and time. Go slow, and at your own pace – in the same way that we don’t develop unhealthy boundaries overnight, we don’t develop healthy ones right away either.

“Also, make sure to practice self-care. If you are rested, your mind will be clear and you can communicate better. Building better boundaries is a process that requires a willingness to learn and grow. Inform yourself about mindful communication and building better relationships,” Cat said.

Setting boundaries doesn’t mean you’re being self-absorbed or selfish – you’re simply preventing your energy from being drained, which is beneficial for both parties in the long run. After all, you can’t pour from an empty cup, so practicing self-care in the form of healthy boundaries should always be a priority, even after the holiday season. – Rappler.com

You can book a session with MindNation via MindNation’s website, email address (book@mindnation.com), Facebook messenger, or through their Facebook or Instagram pages.

Steph Arnaldo

If she’s not writing about food, she’s probably thinking about it. From advertising copywriter to freelance feature writer, Steph Arnaldo finally turned her part-time passion into a full-time career. She’s written about food, lifestyle, and wellness for Rappler since 2018.