How to Deal with Difficult People During the Holidays

I wanted to write a blog about dealing with difficult people, especially during the holidays, because I noticed it’s a common reason for people to go therapy. The definition of “difficult” can greatly vary between each person. For the purpose of this blog, we will define a “difficult” person as someone we love very much, but don’t necessarily like them or want to spend a great deal of time with them. They might love or like you, but if you find yourself feeling hurt, nervous, guilty, or uncomfortable around them, or are constantly walking on eggshells when you’re with them, this is a good indication they can be classified as a difficult person.

The holidays can be a very exciting and joyful time for many people, but for others it represents a challenge because we are forced to interact with friends or family that we don’t have a close relationship with or even worse, don’t like at all. It puts pressure on use that we have to or should be together, regardless of how it makes us feel.

In my private practice I find that many of my clients struggle to cope with feelings of guilt, shame, anger and more during the holiday season. It is especially tough for those who grew up in a family system where feelings were not validated or respected, where there was alcohol or substance abuse, or where secrecy was the main form of communication. As adults, we have it ingrained in our beliefs that our feelings aren’t valid, and therefore continue to carry around shame and guilt, and force ourselves to do things we don’t like, such as spending time with “difficult” people. We are taught that the holidays are a time when people who are difficult to deal with have someone magically changed and become better versions of themselves. Unfortunately, the holidays are when all of the family challenges become more noticeable, hurtful, and stressful.


One way to cope with difficult people during the holidays is to shift your expectations. Don’t go into it with the goal of making them understand how you feel or hoping they’ve become a better person. The goal is to effectively and respectfully stand up for ourselves and set clear boundaries. Here are a few suggestions to stay focused on your needs and feelings, so you can enjoy your time with the people who are respectful, loving, and caring of who you are and what is important to you:

  • Visualize going into the party and leaving it with a good feeling. Stay focused on the goal of spending time with the people you do like and the people you do want to see.
  • Use humor as a response.
  • Have an escape plan. Set a time limit for yourself or have an excuse to leave early.
  • Get help from a trusted friend or partner. If you go to an event with somebody, signal to each other when you need help ending a conversation with someone you don’t like or help changing the topic.
  • Don’t acknowledge rude or intrusive questions. Change the topic and refuse to participate in discussing negative things or topics that only make us feel angry or sad. Some “difficult” people only like to talk about negative things and judge others.
  • Take a chance at being assertive and politely say you don’t want to talk about a particular topic at that moment. If someone makes a comment on how you should be doing things or living your life, remind yourself and them that you are there to enjoy everyone’s company and have a good time – not to feel bad about yourself.
  • If you like kids, go play with them  and create good memories. Limit your time with adults if they’re the ones that give you stress!
  • You don’t have to be involved with other people’s conflicts, even if that person is your partner/spouse. Let them deal with their own issues, and tell your significant other that you’ll support them in a different way that’s not getting involved with their disputes at the party.
  • Keep busy by helping out at the party – do dishes, support a new mom, set the table, etc. If you keep busy, that will limit how much you can be dragged into discussions.


So many of us believe it’s mandatory to spend your holidays with family, regardless of your relationship with them or how it makes you feel. The good news is, it’s OK to not see your family during the holidays. I have often suggested to clients that they don’t see their family if it causes too much stress or anxiety. If you live far away from your family, that’s a great excuse to skip a visit this holiday season. Use traveling expenses or scheduling conflicts as an excuse.

You also have the option to spend holidays with close friends rather than family. Our friends are the family we choose. Create other healthy relationships where you don’t feel obligated to spend time with them, but actually want to. Develop those relationships with people who respect and care for you. It’s very healthy to spend time with those people instead of family. There’s a lot of cultural pressure that it’s wrong to not be with family during this time, but the truth is your emotional health comes first and you can choose who you spend your holidays with.

These tips and coping tools also apply to other family events, such as weddings, birthday or anniversary parties, or other holidays. There are all of these expectations for people to get along and be happy, and when you show up with those expectations, you’ll leave feeling bad because that’s not reality. Put yourself and your emotional wellness first. You aren’t responsible for other people’s behaviors and thoughts, but there are things you can do to minimize your involvement. If you are having a tough holiday season, I’m here for you. Contact me to learn how therapy can help you get through this time of year so you can be the best version of yourself in the new year.

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