Mental Health

How to Navigate Holiday Gatherings with Compassion

by Keren Sofer

The holidays are a magical time, but mainly in youth. As adults, we’ve come to learn that holidays often bring a bit more pressure, a lot less magic, and perhaps even one too many holiday cocktails. Maybe you’re hosting your family for dinner, traveling home in a rush after work meetings or deadlines, or dreading the expectations around sharing personal updates with well-intentioned relatives dying to know if kids are in your future. 

For those of us feeling less than excited, we might wonder how we’ll find the silver lining, let alone make it through the whole holiday ordeal. In this article, I’ll share some simple tips and tricks that invite you to manage your expectations, take care of yourself and set healthy boundaries this holiday season.


According to Kristin Neff, Ph.D., the foremost researcher on the topic, self-compassion refers to a multitude of attitudes and behaviors that include self-kindness, seeing your pain as human and justified, and mindfully acknowledging your experience. There is no limit for self-compassion.  

Many of us don’t recognize how harsh we can often be on ourselves. Social interactions with friends and acquaintances can feel like a mix of excitement and stress. It’s normal to walk away and analyze the conversions had and the opinions shared, or worry how we might have come across.

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Interactions with family can also feel difficult to navigate. It is important to keep in mind going into family gatherings that you’re not responsible for any dysfunction in your family of origin. Being aware of this and activating self-compassion will help protect you from distress or self-blame - especially if the entire holiday experience isn’t wrapped up in a bright red bow. Self-compassion is not equal to not being 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 also experience love and care.

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 observe negative interactions unfolding and make the choice to be in the audience instead of on the stage.

This behavior comes handy in helping 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. Let’s analyze a practical case: 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 recognizing the pattern, you have a better chance of keeping your balance 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 yourself available 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.

Keren Sofer, Psy.D.

So, when your father-in-law 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 conversation 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. 

Keep in Mind..

While there is no secret ingredient for creating a harmonious and cohesive family or social gathering, these tips might help you feel more prepared and able to handle 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 act graciously despite the inevitable pressure surrounding the holidays.


Keren Sofer, Psy.D. is Philadelphia-based psychologist and relationship expert. She is passionate about helping people cultivate meaningful connections with others. Through an approach integrating compassion and science, she strives to support, educate, and empower others.