Mental Challenges

Exactly What To Say To Shut Down Triggering Conversations Around the Holidays, According to Therapists

Kells McPhillips

Photo: Getty Images/Klaus Vedfelt
For some, going home for the holidays can feel like running through a field of landmines with respect to triggering conversations. But the truth is, even if talking through important topics like politics, social-justice, and racial-equity, for just a few examples, didn't happen at your family gathering, it's still the case that no one knows how to push your buttons quite like the people who raised you. That's why therapists recommend learning how to shut down triggering conversations before your folks pick you up at the airport.

Kerrie Mohr, LCSW, founder of A Good Place Therapy & Consulting, says a few major themes emerge when it comes to triggering conversations that families have over holiday meals. "Politics and positions on masks and vaccines are very triggering conversations of the moment for families," says Mohr. Add in the fact that the holidays can be a time that's particularly fraught for those recovering from eating disorders, those grieving a loved one, and non-binary folks, and you have the perfect family recipe for emotional turmoil. 

According to Mohr, one helpful strategy is to think of your family like a jigsaw puzzle. Each piece goes out on its own for a year, then returns home over the holidays. "Sometimes pieces stop fitting, so we have to try to stop trying to use that piece. We can change the puzzle piece, and in doing so, the family can adapt and change," she says. Learning how to halt unwanted conversations while keeping your boundaries in tact can help you put together that jigsaw puzzle in a way that feels safe to you. 

In order to do that this year, Mohr says you'll want to have a game plan before you head home (or wherever you're going this holiday season) for the holidays and one for when you've actually arrived at your childhood home. Below, she shares her best advice for enjoying the season on your own terms—and no one else's.

How to set boundaries around triggering conversations before Thanksgiving

Let's set the stage: You're about to hop in you car and drive a few hours to your parents' house for Thanksgiving. Before you leave, spend some time thinking about what topics of conversations would leave you feeling most connected with each family member or friend at the dinner table. "Have clear, positive goals in mind about what you would like to connect with your family members about: What values and interests do you share? What aspects of each family member's life and experience are you most eager to learn more about? What aspects of your own life and experience are you most eager to share?" asks clinical psychologist Gena Gorlin, PhD. For example, you may decide you want to ask your mom about her recent experience training for a marathon, or get the scoop from your cousin about his recent, cross-country road trip.

"Have clear, positive goals in mind about what you would like to connect with your family members about: What values and interests do you share?" —clinical psychologist Gena Gorlin, PhD

With these positive table topics in mind, you'll have a much easier time setting boundaries and redirecting the conversation when it no longer serves your mental well-being, says Dr. Gorlin. And—speaking of boundaries—Mohr recommends defining yours before hopping in the car. If you're recovering from an eating disorder, give yourself permission to leave the table if people are making triggering comments over pie and ice cream. Remember: You have a say in how this holiday season goes. You don't have to sit back, suck it up, and accept bad behavior.

How to shut down triggering conversations while you're home for the holidays

When you spot an incoming triggering conversation, Mohr recommends taking a quick diagnostic of how the person meant the comment or question. "Are they curious, thoughtful, nosy, thoughtless, or just plain mean-spirited?" asks Mohr. If someone is being inquisitive and respectful about some aspect of your life, maybe you will want to engage with them. Or hey, maybe you won't—and that's okay. "When you are honoring your own boundaries, you have the permission to choose what you want to share about yourself in your response," adds Mohr.

If you do decide you want to pass on the conversation, Dr. Gorlin recommends shutting it down as succinctly and directly as possible. Say something like, "I'd rather not discuss that" or "I prefer that we not talk about X." Then, you can steer the conversation back to one of those decidedly more positive topics mentioned earlier.

Of course, sometimes the triggering conversation won't directly involve you. For example, maybe your uncle and dad are all the way across the table from you, but you can still hear them discussing something that makes you feel uncomfortable. In this case, Mohr recommends syncing up with yourself before deciding what to do next. "Identify what is being stirred up. Notice where you might feel the tension in your body, and acknowledge and accept the emotion you feel. Try to maintain curiosity towards yourself and the emotions being stirred up, but also curiosity towards the person triggering you. This curiosity helps cultivate empathy and tolerance that will also help you stay calm," she says. 

With this perspective, you'll be able to know whether intervening in that conversation will truly serve your well-being. "You might want to consider what kind of engagement is aligned with your values, as not taking part might also make you feel complicit," says Mohr. "You can explore whether or not that is a battle that is yours to fight and how it may serve you and the others involved whom you care about.” Then, you can make your choice. Maybe you decide to redirect the conversation with one of your positive table topics. Maybe you excuse yourself for walk. Maybe you opt to stand your ground and argue. Whatever you choose, take heart in the fact that your actions aligned with your values—even in an immensely triggering time. 

If all else fails and you feel like people are stomping on your boundaries, remove yourself from the situation as best you can. "When tension escalates and people are flooded emotionally, they are not likely to use their rational minds in continuing a constructive dialogue. It would be best to take a time out if you find yourself getting too heated," says Mohr. Depending on the severity of the conversation, this might look like leaving the room for a few minutes or booking a hotel for the night so you can put some distance between yourself and what or whom triggered you.

Above all else, remind yourself that “you are worthy of boundaries and self-compassion," says Mohr. 

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