By Jamie Gruman
Social allergies are a lot like seasonal allergies. They’re annoying, exhausting and hard to avoid. They’re also especially common around the holidays. That’s because the holidays put you at a high risk of exposure. Swap the dander and ragweed for your not-so-favourite acquaintances and relatives and there you have it — a full-blown case of social allergies.
Maybe it’s the way your aunt constantly complains about frivolous things. Or perhaps it’s how your father-in-law smacks his lips and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand when he eats. Or could it be the way your cousin can’t have a conversation without droning on about himself?
All of us have allergies to people whose seemingly inconsequential behaviour irritates us. The emotional and physical symptoms these social allergens produce arise within minutes of exposure, making us want to immediately evacuate the toxic environment.
The holiday season social allergy
Like seasonal allergies, social allergies are often inescapable. Triggers include the obligatory get-togethers that come with the holidays. For many, the season, beginning with American Thanksgiving, is supposed to be a time to recharge our batteries: recover from the unreasonable deadlines, numerous pressures and other demands we face on a daily basis.
Social allergies can interfere with that plan.
Rather than having a few days off to decompress, we spend our time away from work filled with dread, anxiety and exasperation because we have to endure people we are allergic to.
Although we can get out of some noxious social situations, there are others that are almost mandatory.
So, what are the social antihistamines that will help us cope?
One effective way to prevent a social allergic reaction is to limit your exposure. In the same way a person allergic to cats should avoid snuggling up in bed with a pride of domestic felines, a person with social allergies should avoid staying in an environment full of social allergens.
By minimizing the amount of time you are in contact with the allergens, you attack the problem directly, fostering resilience and recovery by reducing your exposure to a hazardous situation.
This means leave early or come late. Have a strategy to restrict the amount of time you spend surrounded by your social allergens. While you are at the gathering, be strategic about the social situations you place yourself in. When finding a spot at the dinner table, don’t sit next to Cousin So-and-so or Aunt M and definitely don’t sit in full view of your lip-smacking father-in-law.
We have the power to exert some control over many social allergens.
For example, when speaking with a self-centred toxic relative, she’s looking for a certain type of reaction from you. In many cases, the wanted reaction is simple: it’s support and validation.
While you may want to shut off the stream coming out of auntie’s mouth, this will not actually help calm your allergic reaction. But if you spend some time to first provide the validation she seeks, you could potentially satisfy her craving and extinguish the behaviour you find repellent.
If you can no longer tolerate your father-in-law’s eating, consider speaking to him about his eating habits. But remember that conversations not only convey information, they also have implications for relationships and identities.
Make it clear to him that you’re speaking to him about this because you love him. And see if you can bring up the topic indirectly so that you don’t come across as intrusive. Giving feedback to people often fails to change their behaviour if we’re not sensitive about how it might be received.
If giving feedback to your father-in-law doesn’t seem like the best idea, you can instead try practising mindfulness. Mindfulness is a non-judgmental state of present moment awareness.
When social allergens start bothering you, pay attention to your own internal irritation without evaluating it. Don’t cling to it and don’t push it away. Just follow it.
Watching the ebbs and flows of your experience has a way of putting distance between you and your reactions through a process called reperceiving. Mindfulness won’t necessarily prevent the allergen from bothering you, but it will help you control how much it annoys you and how quickly you recover from its effects.
Social allergies can burn you out and change a relaxing holiday into a stressful test of endurance. To get a boost during holiday time, you need to make sure that you spend your time with people who recharge and revitalize you.
Also, mitigate your averse reaction to people’s annoying habits. A few simple steps can transform your holiday into one that lets you enjoy a happy, healthy break, instead of having to contend with social allergies.
The author thanks Deirdre Healey’s assistance with this article.
Jamie Gruman is a Professor of Organizational Behaviour at University of Guelph.
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