Tips for Fighting Family Gathering Anxiety

By Dr. Hendrie Weisinger

If you are like millions of others worldwide, I can make money by betting that in the next few weeks, you will be going to an event that has existed hundreds of thousands of years before catering — the family gathering.

I’ll make even more money by betting that you will be excited to go; you’ll think about it for weeks, buy a new article of clothing tell your friends you’re going, get delusional about losing 10 pounds and, even when you can’t afford it, buy gifts for all — aunts, uncles, cousins, newborns of cousins (In Yankees language, it is a contemporary “Murderers’ Row”) — and you will do all with a smile.

I am not finished. My big cash-in is my final bet — that you will be happy to leave. You know the phrases, from the original, “Come on, the traffic is going to be terrible,” to the more modern, “Come on, we’re going to miss the plane.” In the old days, you said, “He doesn’t feel good.” This year, you are probably going with, “He’s going back to college tomorrow.” For many, it is as plain as, “Come on already, I want to go,” and that is usually said with great enthusiasm.

Of course there are the outliers: those family gatherings that start with enthusiasm and end with genuine feelings of sadness because each family member is sad to leave the presence of those that gathered. It is unfortunate that according to the bell curve of family gatherings, the aforementioned is rare, and it should also be stated for the record that the opposite is also rare, that the family gathering ends with everybody wishing wrath for each other, the lone example being the family gathering of the Five Families.

The fact is, for the majority of us, family gatherings run the gamut of emotions. An utterance from a cousin might irk you for a minute, just as watching grandparents dance might evoke a tear of joy. It’s all there, and when the good outweighs the bad and the ugly, the family gathering is sweet.

Most psychologists, and I am not an exception, will tell you that many people suffer what I coin FGA — Family Gathering Anxiety. Basically, this refers to those who experience strong feelings of anxiety before and often during a family gathering. In this context, their anxiety stems from their uncertainties as to how the family gathering will run its course. “What if he brings this up? What should I say?” It might be, “I know they are all going to comment on my weight,” a slight derivation being, “I know they are all going to ask when I will get a job.”
Whatever it is, these uncertainties ruin the pleasure of family gatherings.

Over the years, I have developed some hands-on, easy-to-use, powerful techniques, all confirmed to be effective by thousands of people who have attended family gatherings. These can make your next family gathering positively memorable and cut back on FGA.

Practice what I preach:

1) “You Look Great!”
Who doesn’t want to hear that? Psychology research in the area of positive affects shows that giving people compliments about their physical attractiveness, health and weight increases their self-esteem, puts them in a good mood, and makes them kinder to you! So what if it only has a momentary impact? You are not there forever. The one caveat is that once you use it for one family member, you have to say it to all; otherwise, some will take it that you think they don’t look great, which of course is true.

Nevertheless, you are not there to offend, so make sure you give at least one compliment to every member of the family gathering. If you have FGA, making a list of compliments in advance will help you be confident that your conversations will be positive and fun. Be prepared for getting your compliments returned, naturally with the same sincerity.

2) Sensitive Avoidance
We can all learn from my friend Herb’s experience:

I always look forward to seeing my nephews at family gatherings. We always talk college football, but since they are both Michigan fans, they get sick and angry every time I bring up the subject. It got so bad, that one of my nephews started choking on a turkey leg when I mentioned the pathetic Michigan defense. I thought I would have to call 911. Since then, I make it a point never to mention Michigan football, basketball either.

Herb has a point: we all know what makes others feel bad, so increase your awareness of what you say. Don’t bring up topics or say things that hurt the feelings of those who have gathered with you.

3) “Can I Get You Anything?”
You will find it fun every so often to take a glance around to see what you might do to serve someone. Perhaps your aunt wants a piece of cake, but it is an effort for her to get out of her chair. Be the good nephew and rush to her assistance; you will make her happy, and, naturally, you will share the contagious emotion with her. If there are little ones, play with them, do something for them, and, if only for the evening, you are their favorite grownup.

Saying, “You look great!” practicing sensitive avoidance and asking, “Can I get you anything?” are sure to enhance any family gathering, and if you forget to do these things, just remember that a family gathering is not just an event to go to; it is an opportunity to get those that we love to all be together.

Dr. Weisinger is a New York Times bestselling author. Check out his other articles at