Updated: Jan 3, 2019
Yep, it’s holiday season. And that means a lot more social interaction for most of us. Not all of it is a pleasure. Let’s be honest. More people kill themselves at this time of the year than at any other time. This is a sad truth that I think isn’t helped by the fact that even if we’re having a hard time with it all, it’s not quite socially acceptable to say anything even approaching, “Yeah, well, I hate this time of year.”
It’s true that many, many articles that you’ll be seeing in the next few weeks will acknowledge that the holidays can be a lonely time of year, and this accounts for the rise in suicides. But…
It’s a stressful time, whether you’re on your own, or whether you’re dealing with psychopathic, narcissistic, or otherwise unpleasant co-workers and family members you do your best to avoid the whole rest of the year. This joyous, happy holiday time of year is stressful. The logistics, the weather (in many cases), the bills. The shopping. Timing stuff for when shops and banks and everything are not closed. The crowds. Finishing work projects in time. Trying your best to keep things pleasant and cheerful while being attacked (because your attackers know you won’t retaliate since you’re the nice one here). All that stuff. It’s stressful. For most people. You can feel the tension in the air.
If that’s not your experience, well that’s jolly good for you. I’m actually glad your life runs on happy little ball bearings. But mine certainly doesn’t, so go on and feel superior if you really need to. I won’t wait though, so go on and take your time.
For the rest of y’all who might be dreading the next office party or family get-together, however, here is what I like to call “The Great W.O.B.’s 3-Step Plan”:
Don’t live in dread.
Yeah, it’s going to be shit. You know it, I know it, and maybe even they know it, too. In fact, they might be relishing that fact, the sick fuckers. Now, it’s not easy to do, but making an effort to tell yourself, “Well, I’ve got this thing, and it’s not going to be the best thing I’ve ever gone to, but at least there’s a beginning and an end to it.” Define it, give it a boundary. Worrying about what might happen or what someone might say, or when they’re going to start something is only going to stress and tire you out. By all means, prepare for the worst, but don’t dwell on it too much beforehand. Go in with a sense of equipoise and self-control. This takes practice, by the way, so don’t beat yourself up too much if you don’t manage. Even a thief is clumsy… at first!
Have a plan.
If you think you may have to beat a hasty retreat from a difficult gathering or situation, have a plan. Don’t feel guilty about leaving early if you’re going to be abused or ill-used. In fact, give yourself a pat on the back for even turning up at all. You don’t actually have to, after all, even if that’s what everyone conspires to think. If the people you’re dealing with are really that bad, there will be fallout whether you stay or leave, because that’s what spending any time with them results in anyway. Sometimes the best way to minimise damage is just… not to bother trying to do so. Believe it or not, showing an obvious lack of concern for the dramatic situation they’re trying very hard to create unsettles them. Because in order for their crap to work, you have to invest in it too.
Sometimes we play along and take the crap because we feel like we need to do it to protect other people. I do understand that. But I’d also posit this for you to consider: you stand a better chance of helping someone else in a position of oppression or abuse by showing them a way out of it, instead of rolling over to join them in it.
And that brings us to:
"We have shitburgers incoming, sir."
Flip the shitburgers.
This is easier to illustrate than it is to explain. But it is the act of spiritual jujitsu that this article is here to disseminate.
Here’s a (simplified) scenario:
Your in-laws start a scene about something every time you have to get together for family holidays. You know it’s coming, your spouse knows it’s coming. So you’ve already 1.) agreed not to dread it, and 2.) made a plan to get out after 2 hours. You’ve already told everyone that you have another thing you have to go to, but that you’re glad to be here now.
Them: “I can’t believe you’re going to leave your own family dinner early. You’re so unappreciative of everyone here.”
You (with a big, proud, unapologetic smile): “Yeah, I really am a piece of shit, aren’t I?”
(don’t forget to stop and enjoy the look on their faces at this point.)
Except, you know, actually say it, and mean it. Take the guilt and “good manners” with which they attack you, and show it for the shitburger it is. Own that shitburger, and fling it right back, with some honesty (and if it helps, go on and imagine flinging an actual shitburger, with ketchup and pickles and runny cheese, right at them). People who like to make an awkward time of things and blame everyone else for it don’t know what to do when their own shit is dished right back to them. It’s like holding up a mirror to their behaviour. They either have to see it and acknowledge it, or … not. They rely on the fact that no one is going to look straight at their shitburger and call it a shitburger right in front of everyone. They rely on the polite unspoken rage and hurt, and you to bottle it up inside. They rely on you being less horrible than they are. Because they’re the bullies.
"That ain't no regular storm, son. Nah, that there's a real shitstorm a-brewin'."
The important thing about this method (which takes some practice) is this: only fling back the personal attack, but in honest words. Visualise the personal judgement as the shitburger. Not the bun it’s wrapped in to make it look reasonable and palatable — in this way, you are at less of a risk of getting bogged down in excuses, apologies, justifications for the behaviour they’re pretending to be incensed about. So, when the attack comes, re-visualise it in your mind as a boss fight:
“I was going to start something because I want to attack you. I’m using some pretence that I hope you’ll get bogged down in, and I’m making a long, impressive speech saying as much. So then, while you’re defending yourself against the adds I’ve summoned with this terrific speech, I can come in and take down all your health.”
In other words, ignore the adds. Deflect the boss’s attack back at him. Don’t let his over-time effects hit you and weaken you as you try to diminish his army of bread-buns, or whatever.
Ignore the minutiae of the attack, and fling back the personal judgement. 9 times out of 10, this translates well as, “Yeah, I’m a piece of shit, aren’t I?” And that’s all you need to say. You don’t acknowledge any of their “reasons”, you just go for the hard little nugget they’re hoping will hurt you.
Sure, you’ll be the bad guy after that. But… you were going to be anyway. They’re planning on it, and that’s why they attack you in front of other people in the first place. But you can use your surroundings to your advantage, too. This way, you’ve got some honesty in there, and it won’t hurt as much, because the situation they were relying on has not put you directly into the victim position they were planning.
Trust me. I know. It’s better to get things out in the open, even if it’s unpleasant. It’s unpleasant anyway. But at least this way it’s honest unpleasantness, and more equally distributed. Get people talking afterwards — it’s the only chance for putting your awkward or dysfunctional relationships onto a better footing in the long run. (Just, please don’t do this in a situation that might come to actual physical violence and harm you. And don’t throw any punches yourself. Just the metaphorical shitburgers).
They will lie behind your back anyway, and try to turn other people against you. Give them some fire. Those who choose to believe in the shitburgers being bandied about aren’t worth your worry. Those who aren’t sure will talk to you and find out what’s going on. And those who know a hawk from a hand saw even when the wind isn’t southerly will respect you and gain strength from you for standing up for yourself. And that’s a positive influence for the people who really count.
There’s also nothing funnier than watching their faces when you take on their lies and backbiting, and say, “Yeah, ok, I’ll own that now!” Triumph in it. Find a persona for dealing with those people — a ridiculous, dangerous-to-start-something-with, stronger one.
Every single one of us has enough in our lives to be getting on with, and those with a little empathy will forgive you the odd defensive outburst (just, you know, keep it simple, directed and controlled). Saying no, decisively, to someone trying to create discord and drama in the lives around them is a positive act, the redressing of a wrong that isn’t just about you. And once you stop worrying about the content of the lies and embrace it, as a kind of perverse joke, life gets a lot more fun and free. And most importantly, it also strengthens and supports others in your situation.
And that, my friends, is how I became the Whore of Babylon, to whom all power is given.
Simplify your life. Don’t worry about social crap that hasn’t happened yet. Always be aware of all the exits available to you when you walk into a potential situation. Enjoy your genuine friends and family, and fling shitburgers back at anyone who dishes ‘em out. This is your life, and you’re allowed to own it, even if it takes a little well-directed force sometimes. Don’t play the game. Live the dance.
(meta-hashtag-quasi-human-readable internetty stuff follows)