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Family holiday gatherings: juggling difficult personalities


Dr. Gayani DeSilva MD



Gayani DeSilva is a Child Adolescent Psychiatrist with 20 years experience. She is the author of A Psychiatrists Guide: Helping Parents Reach Their Depressed Tween, and A Psychiatrists Guide: Stop Teen Addiction Before It Starts.

The holidays are a time when families try to welcome every member, even the ones who can make our skin crawl, or make us run under a rock every other day of the year. The general intention to be accepting and tolerant is a noble goal, but easier to imagine than to experience. Personalities can be strong, and a challenge to handle at a meal, let alone share a peaceful season. Here are some common strong personalities and how to enjoy them during the holidays.


The Narcissist is the relative who simply wants to talk about themselves, and complains when “being forced” to do what others prefer. Their main fear is that they will not be noticed. So go ahead and notice them. Give them tasks to do, and praise them for it.


The Drama Queen always has a story to tell. Their main need is to be heard. So listen to their story, with empathy. Ask for details about their experience. They will gladly give it, and you can be entertained by a good story.


The Control Freak wants to make sure everything is perfect. They struggle with trying to hide their insecurities. It’s not that they are afraid you’ll make a mistake, it is that the Control Freak is afraid you will see their flaws. The way to enjoy the Control Freak is to be transparent with your mistakes and anxiety. Tell them that you are nervous that you haven’t wrapped your gifts well enough (for example). The Control Freak will immediately come to your defense and help sooth your anxiety.


The Downer (or Pessimist) will complain and predict catastrophe around the corner. They struggle with a fear of success. Remind them that no matter what happens, everything will be ok.


Strong personalities develop out of fears that personal vulnerabilities will be exposed or become overwhelming. The best way to handle the people who struggle with these fears is to approach them with compassion. Give them soothing statements, share your feelings with them, and be transparent with your own vulnerabilities.


Remember that how people behave has nothing to do with you and everything to do with their internal insecurities and struggles. They do not usually know that they are being offensive. They need your compassion, tolerance and acceptance. It might be the best gift you can give.

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