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Gaye Advice: Tips on How to Deal with the 4 Types of Difficult Family Members during the Holidays

Life & Experience | Advice

It’s that time of year. All over America, we prepare to gather together for all kinds of seasonal meats, pastries and all the uncomfortable conversations we can stomach.

That’s right. It’s the holiday season and that can only mean holiday parties and family gatherings. We love our families but there are landmines at so many Thanksgiving dinners, and while everyone is different, there are themes that we see. I'm Rachael Kates, the Level 20 Brain Cleric, a licensed master social worker, therapist, and coach here to walk you through a few of the difficult personalities that members of the queer community encounter when we spend time with our families and coworkers over spiked punch.

I’ll give you some perspective on why they behave the way they do and make sure that you have tips, tricks and tactics that I would give my clients for how to deal with these difficult people before you head off into the holiday fray so you can have some ideas to help you cope if you’re confronted with any of these problem personalities over the mashed potatoes.

The Homophobic True Believer

The Homophobic True Believer is a staple of the south but true believers are like pizza and beer, you can find them everywhere. The true believer is your “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” relative, your “Love the Sinner Hate the Sin” relative, your “Trump is a messenger of God” relative, the loving but offensive “Very concerned you’re going to burn in hell” relative, and of course the “Well bless their heart, it’s so sad these gays will never know the Lord’s love” relative.

The Homophobic True Believer is a warrior of their god and they are out here, fighting like hell for your soul.

You’ve had the true believer in your life long enough to know, they aren't going to magically stop believing and no amount of cajoling or yelling is going to convince them. Often, the homophobic flavor of a true believer thinks: God said it, I believe it, that settles it. If you try to fight them? You’re not just fighting their worldview, you’re fighting them and their higher authority and these people are in it to win it.

I know that it can be tempting to meet the true believer with science or more bible verses to counter their behavior. I know that the pull of canonical research or pointing out contradictions in the bible is a way to strike back. And if you want to do that? That is an option.

But I encourage everyone who is tempted to enter into fights with a True Believer to remember that being right is a hell of a drug. And your True Believer has probably been hooked on the high of righteousness for a very long time. Ask yourself if you really think all your knowledge and your queer wrath can compete with their addiction to being sure they know all the answers.

Now, you can of course engage in the battle, if you want to. Sometimes you are tired of being nice. Sometimes you want to go apeshit! (Beyoncé Voice) Sometimes the answer is yes. That's okay. We all get pushed too far. At that point, the goal becomes damage control. You do not want to burn your bridges but you also have to say something. Just make sure you're prepared for the fallout of whatever you choose.

The Delusional Theorist

You know this one. These are your “the gay Hollywood elite is making all media woke” relative, your “the gay/critical race theory agenda is infiltrating our schools” relative, your “trans people and drag queens are out to hurt our children” relative.

Word to the wise: Do not argue with the delusional conspiracy theorist if you can help it. Hey, listen, I know they’re infuriating. I know they’re wrong. I know they’re hurtful. I know they’re extra hurtful because you love them and they are talking about you.

But the reality is that your family member has fallen prey to a belief that is helping them to cope with something that scares them. What is it they’re coping with? I'll tell you. I don't know.

Unfortunately for everyone, the sustaining worldview that creates a feeling of protection for the conspiracy theorist relative includes a lens on the reality that makes you - their family member - A Threat To The Ideology (TM). This creates a cognitive dissonance that can be very inconvenient for all parties involved at obligatory social gatherings. Remember that fact, and it will (hopefully) give you some compassion for them as you get through this situation which you (hopefully) will be able to extract yourself from soon.

If you are dead set on engaging with them on their topic of choice, remember that approaching them from a gentle, loving place with their best interest at heart, is your best chance of getting through to them. Ask yourself “What does this person really want? How does what I believe achieve what they want?” However, be prepared to hit a wall.

If or when the conflict happens? Breathe deeply. Turn the conversation to something new. Take frequent breaks. Get up and go to the bathroom. Fake a phone call. Take a walk. If you need to, leave the event. Pet the cat, make an Irish goodbye, and duck out. You can always leave anything, this month, or any time in the future, forever. It’s always your choice to stay or to go.

But you will not win a fight with the conspiracy theorist. They need the conspiracy theory for their worldview. I know it hurts but this is about them and their needs, not you.

This is where I would normally offer a few canned lines you can use with this personality type.

The delusional theorist is the result of ideology that comes out of High Control Groups, often called cults, and it is never wise to engage with a member of a High Control Group about their ideology as this is how they recruit.

So truly, your best bet is to not engage on the conspiracy side of things, but if you are interested in this topic, let me know, I’d love to do a feature on small high control groups and how these dynamics manifest in our friendships and families but that’s another story for another day.

The Silent Speaker

Oh, the Silent Speaker. The Silent Speaker lacks the ability to express themselves and they make that your problem in every possible way because they are feeling some type of way and you are going to know about it, but not in any type of way that you can do something about.

The Silent Speaker is someone you know "does not like you because of your sexuality, gender, etc.. and they may express their disdain in microaggressions. For the Silent Speaker, my dear friends, I want you to remember that other people’s feelings are not your problem. You are not responsible for what another person thinks, feels or does. Ever!

On this planet of Earth, we are all separate, individuated beings. This is both a great tragedy and a divine triumph. And when it comes to the silent speaker, who uses intentional silence to stress that they do not want to use your chosen gender/name, or mention your partner, or is very clear through their body language and tone that they are upset but won’t be specific to tell you what or how they don’t like what you’ve done. This fact is your savior.

Remember, you cannot read their minds. And you are separate from them. You are not them. You can't make anyone feel any type of way. They only feel what they feel because of themselves. There’s a whole flow chart about it with bright colors about how emotions work! Come to therapy, I’ll show you.

But the very short version is A Thing Happens —> The Brain Gets Info from the Thing —>The Brain Chooses(1) How to Interpret the Info —> The Interpretation Gets Translated into an Emotion —>The Emotion Gets Mixed With Thoughts —>Together Thoughts and Emotions Make a Choice(2) About an Action —> Action Is Taken.

If you’re The Thing that happens? That’s the only part you play in the emotions of the other person. They had 2 different points where they could choose what to do. Both of them were in their head and neither of them involved you!

So you decide what to do, on your own. You have a permit. Treat everything they say as completely sincere. Don’t look for hidden meaning. Don’t look for background.

It may be there. It probably is, don’t get me wrong. But you’re trying to get through this moment with this person and that’s a Them Problem.

The You Solution? Is to treat it as sincere. You meet them in a sincere way in return. Disarm them and move on through.

The next step is to continue as if it didn't happen. Sound's simple. It is. It is also excruciatingly difficult. Things that are simple and effective are often very, very hard.

Try moving the conversation away from you. People love to talk about themselves.

“How’s work?”

“What are you watching on Netflix/Hulu/YouTube?”

“What are you doing for fun?”

Remember, always, that they are choosing to feel this way. They could choose differently. They haven’t. That’s on them. You are not responsible for their experience, no matter how much they act like you are a problem.

The Denier

These people seem to grow on every family tree. Your “won't use they/them or correct pronouns”, your “calls your lover your friend”, your “constantly dead names you” relatives. They live in a world where you are still a boy. Or a girl. Or are not dating the same-sex.

First and foremost? Check yourself, before your wreck yourself. And I do not mean that in a "Respect your elders" sense. I mean that in a "know your limits" sense because this person is made of “No.” And you are going to slam your head into a brick wall with them. So before you engage with the Denier, please be prepared to lose and for that loss to cost you many hit points. Be sure you can afford to lose them because the result can be messy.

Now, if you still want to engage? You have to figure out why your denier is in denial. Are they denying because of one of the above categories? Religion? Conspiracy Theory? Skill issue? Terminal suggestion because they think they can control you? If so, then you can pay attention to what it is about their denial that is keeping them from accepting and chip away at it. But it is a chip. You are not going to wear down a mountain in a day.

Remaining calm and approaching from a measured stance can work to chip away at the cognitive dissonance of their position and might help make progress towards eventual acceptance. But it is highly unlikely that in one dinner or party you are going to change their minds.

Slow and steady is your best bet for making progress with the denier. But if you can focus on what it is they have an issue with - and it is almost always a Them Issue, not a You Issue, - you can start some kind of progress.

That requires some serious listening on your part. Which sucks! It’s not fair that as the wronged party you have to do the heavy lifting. But you’re the one who wants things to be different. The denier has a warped reality for themselves. It’s nice where they live. Reality is comfortable for them. You’re the one who needs things to be different. So, unfortunately, if you want things to be different, you’re the one who has to do digging, very carefully, to figure out what it is about this reality that isn’t working for the denier in your life.

And that is no guarantee that things will be better! The denier may want things you can’t give! They may want their daughter to be their daughter when they have a son. They may want to have a wedding with all the traditional bells and whistles when you are never going to have any kind of wedding but a courthouse wedding even if you were going to get marry someone of the opposite sex. They may want grandkids and even if you were going to have the kind of sex that could produce babies, you were never going to reproduce. Sometimes, the things that the people in our lives want doesdon’tn’t match what we are going to do. And denial is what allows them to function without having to process their grief.

When that is the case? This is when separating our emotions from the behavior and emotions of other people becomes crucial. We are not responsible for other people’s experiences. Our choices are our own.

From there it becomes, once again, a question of: How confrontational do you want to be?

For this, I recommend assessing the value of the relationship you have with your denier. Do you want to keep that relationship? Is what they are denying as important as everything else? Can you reach a compromise with your denier? Do you need to set a boundary? If so, what are those boundaries?

Ask yourself ALL these questions before you go meet with your denier. Be ready to hold these lines when you get there. But don’t give yourself a hard time if you can’t. This is hard stuff and it takes lots of practice.

But above all, for all of these personalities, do what you need to do to be sane. Set limits about what can and cannot be discussed in conversation.

And remember!

Do what you need to take care of yourself.

Step away. Call a friend. Go to the bathroom. Take a walk.


You need not storm out in a huff. You can live with dignity and grace, like the queen or king you are. But you can, in fact, exit stage left.

So don't forget to provide yourself ways to do so. You can drive yourself home or you can catch a ride. If they are not worthy of your magnificence? Remove it from them. You have the power here. Exercise it and remember that you don't have to do so in a rage to win the encounter.

Because above all, you have choices.

You decide. Enjoy some radical free will this holiday season. Take control of your life and know that whether you stay and tough it out or sneak away with cat cuddles and a stolen piece of cheesecake in your pocket. This is all up to you.

Stay safe out there. You are the most important person in your life. So do what you Need to do, first and foremost.

Anyway, I love you, and I hope you love you too.

- Rachael Kates LMSW, Level 20 Brain Cleric

Book an in-person or online appointment with Rachael Kates here!


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