How to Be a Zen Master while Spending the Holidays with Your Dysfunctional Family

When you leave home for the first time, you discover yourself. Or, as in my case, you can engineer yourself with the help of some brilliant professionals. This is a simple matter of applying principles of behavior change to your environment to make desired behaviors effortless.

When you cannot control the environment, ideal behavior becomes a taller order.

Periodic visits are mandatory in most families and every homecoming reminds me of the strength of old habits and interpersonal dynamics. Every tendency I have eliminated through careful environmental controls rears it’s ugly head once I’ve returned to the family farm. I only win these battles with a combination of preparation, vigilance, and reflection.

I want to share with you my strategies for dealing with the uncontrollable home environment we all encounter when we return to our parents and siblings for the holiday season. You don’t have to become a child just because you’re in your childhood environment.

There are three phases to be examined: Pre-meditation, Gametime Execution, and Post-Game Analysis.


Treat potentially difficult personal time with the same care you bring to your professional life. If you prepare for a 30-minute meeting with a client, why wouldn’t you put a proportional amount of effort into preparing for a couple of days with the extended family?

This short guide will give you a preparatory framework for spending time in uncontrollable settings with people who know your triggers and push your buttons.

Identify your saboteurs

No, I don’t mean your little brother.

Your saboteurs are mental processes that you engage in that are self-destructive. The best resource on saboteurs is Positive Intelligence by Shirzad Chamine.

If you don’t want to read the book (shame!) here’s a quick overview:

There are ten saboteurs. The most important saboteur is The Judge. The judge plagues us all when we cast judgment on ourselves or others. When your inner dialogue reduces to:

_______ is bad.


 __________________ is ugly.


 ______________________________ should be like _______________________.

Then you know it’s your inner-judge talking.

There are many ways to dismantle the inner judge, but I always return to a stoic mantra attributed to Shakespeare:

Tis neither good nor bad but thinking makes it so.

In addition to the the judge are nine saboteurs that each of us entertains to different degrees:

  1. The Avoider
  2. The Controller
  3. The Hyper-Achiever
  4. The Hyper-Rationalizer
  5. The Hyper-Vigilant
  6. The Pleaser
  7. The Restless
  8. The Stickler
  9. The Victim

(You might see a lot of overlap between Chamine’s Saboteurs and The Enneagram)

We all have one or two saboteurs that cause 80% of our headaches. Mine are The Restless and The Controller.

You can identify your biggest offenders through a process of continual mindfulness. When you get an anxious or angry feeling. Ask yourself a series of “Why’s”.

I discovered my controller saboteur at the end of my last serious relationship. My partner wanted to leave me and I felt out of control so I lashed out at her. It took me a year of reflection to realize what caused the outburst. I felt so out-of-control of the situation, like a cornered animal.

Examine pivotal moments of weakness in your life to uncover your most detrimental saboteurs.

Once you’ve identified the prime candidates for emotional distress, you will have an easier time managing them when having dinner with your racist uncle or alcoholic brother-in-law.

Articulate a positive objective

To be successful, you must define your aim or purpose.

This will give you a target to aim for.

Psychologically, you should focus on what to do. In other words, be prescriptive.

Goals should be specific and binary. You must be able to reflect on your goal and declare it successful or unsuccessful.

For me, I’ve learned that when I begin to feel threatened or uncomfortable, I use sarcasm as a defence mechanism. My goal for this Christmas is to maintain 100% sincerity  when speaking at the dinner table. By definition his would preclude sarcasm.

The goal must be prescriptive because if my goal was simply: “Don’t be sarcastic.” I’d be focusing on the wrong thing and eventually end up manifesting that phenomena in my behavior or thought process.

PROTIP: To set effective goals work with an accountability partner who is familiar with SMART goals and prescriptive goal-setting. 

Meditate on prescriptive qualities

Once you have a specific goal, you can consider the essential qualities that will lead to success. For me, the language that works are powerful words like grace, strength, and peace.

My most potent meditative routine looks like the following:

  1. Wake up
  2. Ten long sounds
  3. Focus on the out breath
  4. Journalling (this is where you can focus on your prescribed qualities)

My journalling almost always begins with the qualities most important to success on that particular day:

Today I will be creative, calm, and thoughtful. I will be creative so that my material legacy grows. I will be calm and thoughtful so that my relationships flourish. 

This is a simple, written affirmation that guides my journalling process and my daily mindstate. Writing it down every day solidifies my daily micro-goals and lets me cognitively process them in visual detail while planning my day. The peace and clarity of the morning ensures that my choices at this time are optimally prudent. The behavior of writing a unique mission statement for the day provides necessary context so that the qualities in question seem relevant to my present situation.

You can do this the morning of your visit, or every day of your visit if you are staying with family for multiple days.

Gametime Execution

If you followed the preparation framework above then you should have a positive and prescriptive goal to focus on while at home with your family. You’re aware of your saboteurs which will help you identify unhelpful cognitive routines before they derail your interactions. You’ve meditated on your goal and the qualities that will help you achieve that goal.

You are prepared for zen mastery. You have the principles and the strategy. Now all you need are the tactics. I use the following five routines to consistently defeat my inner judge and controller.

Practice effective communication

There are two resources I constantly refer to when honing my communication skills:

Difficult Conversations

Non Violent Communication

It is outside the scope of this guide to dive into these deeply. However, here are the points that I’ve been most successful integrating into my interpersonal habits:

Here are the ideas that have most helped in my day-to-day communications:

  1. Take responsibility for your contribution to a problem. Do this before anything else. Apologize early if you make a mistake. Be genuine when you do this. Authentically own up to your mistakes and everyone will respect you more.
  2. Repeat what someone is telling you in your own words. This signals understanding. It let’s the other person know that you’re actively listening to them. Phrases like “I’m hearing that you feel ________” are golden.
  3. Make observations, not accusations. When you’re confronting someone about an issue, focus on observational, objective, facts about the situation. “I am not seeing a reply to my email” is a lot better than “You still haven’t replied to my email”.
  4. Separate impact from intent. Assume that the other person/party is not maliciously trying to hurt you. In fact, it’s best to assume nothing about their intent. You’re not qualified to assess their intent. You’re only qualified to assess the impact something had on you. e.g. “When I don’t get prompt replies to urgent Slack messages, I feel embarrassed in front of clients.” Statements like this focus on an observable fact and it’s impact on you.
  5. Be curious. Pretend you’re a disinterested interviewer. You have no skin in the game. It’s just a conversation between a terrific conversationalist and a fascinating interviewee.

Wear a mask

When I go to a cocktail party, I want to be like James Bond. I meditate on this archetype before my arrival. I wear a dark tuxedo with a pocket square and introduce myself as Eapen, Justus Eapen.

When I’m home with my family, I want to be a Zen Master (hence the name of this article).

I don’t know what Zen masters wear to Christmas dinner. I do know they wear a gentle smile. I know the Dalai Lama loves everyone the way a mother loves her children.

I look good wearing the mask of the Dalai Lama.

Meditating on role models is how I can be loving and compassionate toward difficult family members. It’s how I help introverts socialize in large groups and lead technical teams to solve difficult design and engineering problems.

You should put on the mask before you arrive and you should adjust the mask while you wear it. What I mean is, in the heat of the moment, return to your true north the way the zen master returns to his breath.

Right this second, I am sitting in my parent’s living room with my Mom, Dad, brother, and baby niece. Writing with this level of distraction is something I’ve trained my whole life for. Returning to the practice is the essence of meditation.

When interacting with difficult personalities, I “evoke the zen master”. This means I literally return my thoughts to the zen master and the qualities that define her:

  • Breath
  • Curiosity
  • Gratitude

Drunk Uncle Riff starts spewing homophobic remarks? You feel your inner Judge flare up? Take a moment and breathe. You still with me, Zen Master?

Ok, now dig.

Why is Uncle Riff saying these things? Is he drunk? Has he had certain experiences or education that lead him to this point? Be curious. Ask him these questions with love and disinterested compassion.

No matter his response: be grateful. Thank him for his engagement. Thank him for his unique perspective and valuable lessons he has to teach you.

Read this poem about gratitude courtesy of the honorary Zen Master, Jellaludin Rumi:

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

— Jellaludin Rumi,
translation by Coleman Barks

Call a timeout

Here’s another tip from the introvert’s toolbox:

When things get too heated, retire to the bathroom. Do a power pose and repeat a mantra. Take deep breaths. Take as much time you need to adjust your mask and get to a calm place of power and peace.

So often, our mistakes are mistakes of passion; mistakes of impulse. Calling a timeout is a simple way to get perspective and grip the situation.

The point is to get space in order to utilize one (or many) of the tactics we discuss on this blog to achieve mastery over your behavior.

Venting and reframing

First of all: reframing.

Take something bad that happened and turn it into a good thing (Tis neither good nor bad). For example:

Uncle Riff was drunkenly celebrating Donald Trump’s election making me sick to my stomach.

Turn this decidedly negative perspective and flip it on it’s head:

Uncle Riff was sharing his elation about the election and lead me to realize that I can be stoic in the face of an emotional defeat.

Reframing is the backbone of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Most effective people have a habit of doing this intentionally or otherwise. It is a simple way to control your reaction to circumstances so that every bad thing that happens has positive outcomes.

This can sometimes be difficult in the face of the moment so I have developed a solution to this tricky situation:

A partner.

When I’m furious, anxious, devastated, whatever; I call my good friend Chris.

First I vent to him. I’m talking fast and being reactive to whatever situation triggered the negativity. Then I reframe. Chris listens politely and helps me elaborate to be sincere and constructive.

I recommend you check in with your accountability partner before the holiday to let them know they’ll be on call.

Post-Game Analysis

Great athletes watch game film to deconstruct their performances. I suggest you reflect intensely on your personal performances with family members and close friends. It can only help you become more aware of your various tendencies.

Identify Patterns

Remember when Uncle Riff set you off talking about politics? Make a note of that. Write down your reaction and the way you’d ideally respond if you were truly channeling your inner zen master.


Forgive yourself and forgive others. Kelly McGonigal, one of my favorite psychologists, wrote about self-forgiveness in The Willpower Instinct. Holding mistakes over your head actually makes it harder to get beyond the mistake and make behavior change a reality.

Forgiving others for their mistakes, shockingly, does not require them to apologize.


Conversely: being a good, likeable, person requires the occasional apology. If you make a hurtful mistake in behavior over the holidays. Apologize quickly and profusely to the victim.

See the relevant chapter in How to Win Friends and Influence People for more on apologizing effectively.

Now, onto Eggnog and Holiday Cheer

Finally, I hope this short guide can serve you in your holiday adventures. That said, I have an ask for you, astute reader:

If you found any part useful, please give me a share via the buttons on the left.

Happy Holidays!


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