The spiritual leader Ram Dass once said, ‘If you think you’re enlightened, spend a week with your family.’ Most of us immediately know what he means. For many of us this is a time of year for family, and the TV is full of adverts showing happy families gathered round a groaning table, or excitedly opening presents.

But what if your family isn’t like this?

What if you almost dread Christmas because you know you’re going to be able to cut the tension with a knife?

Family dynamics

Family dynamics are set in childhood and often continue throughout our lives. In your parents’ eyes, you’re still a rebellious teenager, or whatever other role you were assigned or took on decades ago. And maybe when you get back together with your family you ARE still a rebellious teenager, and not the mature, mindful person you usually consider yourself.

You walk in the door, someone makes a negative comment about what you’re wearing or how you’ve put on weight, or are you still doing that dead-end job and BOOM, you’re in the middle of a troll party. Your inner troll and their inner troll are just loving batting barbs back and forth like a tennis match.

Depending on your family, these might be superficially quite subtle and passive aggressive, or it might be full on shouting. Either way it’s no way to spend a precious holiday.

Sometimes families really are so toxic that there is really no option but to avoid spending time with them, or even cut them off altogether. But for most of us, these family dynamics really can be changed with a little (OK, maybe a lot) of mindfulness.

How to change the dynamic

You almost certainly won’t get anywhere by pointing out what’s happening. The other person’s troll will just take that as another shot and bat it right back. The only way to stop the dynamic is to stop playing the game, and don’t return the serve.

This can be tricky at first, because if you are still feeling annoyed but holding yourself back from saying anything the other person’s troll will sense this and keep serving until you just can’t help yourself.

The key is to internally step back from your troll altogether and switch into ‘observer’ mode. In other words be with the part of you that is observing all this happening, but isn’t attached to it. Kind of a bird’s eye view. Once you do this, you can often see that what’s happening is even kind of funny, and if not, it’s certainly not a party you want to join in. Just don’t take it too seriously. Imagine your family members are actually cross and tired toddlers- because in essence when we’re in troll mode that’s exactly what we are.

If it all gets a bit much and you can feel your troll rising, get out and go for a walk, or even go and meditate in the bathroom!

With time, if you stop playing the game, you may find that the other family members also drop it. Not guaranteed, but I’ve seen it happen many times.

These kinds of situations are actually opportunities for personal growth at warp speed, so embrace the challenge if you can and remember that not everyone is lucky enough to have family to be with.