While I'm away, readers give the advice.
On gutting out miserable holidays with family:
Anonymous: I won't bore you with the more gruesome details of what it was like to grow up trapped with an older sibling who hated me — I mean, really. Hated. Me. My existence was an insult to her, and I was never allowed to forget it.
Anyway, in my adulthood, I lived just close enough to Mom and Dad (and sib) that my Christmases and Thanksgivings involved a long, grueling visit to my family. It was torture, but because my parents wanted to go visit, we of course went along. Instead of being happy and comfortable in my own home with loving friends or other relatives, I was counting the minutes at my sib's place, feeling guilty about subjecting my husband and daughter to her, and trying to dodge the inevitable barbs, outright insults and innuendo that were a fixed feature of our being in the same room. I did it for my parents' sake. They knew it was ugly between their daughters and tried to make a show of it being not so on holidays.
I would give anything, Carolyn, to have those days back to give to my loved ones what they deserved from me: a long, loving, fun day together with dear ones in our own home. When my mother passed, I put my foot down and traveled no more, and for the ensuing eight years our family holidays at home have been a joy. Until he passed away, we would go the next day and visit my widowed father and make a great fuss over him, and it was enough.
If I could go back and talk to my then-self, the argument I'd make is that no amount of peacemaking compromises (or outright capitulations) can ever serve one's nuclear family as well as putting their happiness first. The first Christmas or so of opting out might be a little awkward, but after that it's just the way things are done and everyone calms down about it. And if they don't, it becomes their problem.
On having sluggish social reflexes:
M.: I could be very quick, if sarcasm counts. But when I tried to be polite, I found myself agreeing to all kinds of things I didn't want: from giving up information to inviting people over.
I used to be especially easy prey to my passive-aggressive mother-in-law. My husband was a wonderful coach, after the fact, in pointing out the boundaries she and others were crossing with my permission.
One of many things I learned from him was to try adopting the Golden Rule.
First, I changed the way I approached others. Not "Are you free on Saturday?" but "I'm moving Saturday, and I could use your help with the boxes if you've got an hour." Being purposeful when I was the one initiating the conversation (and could think about it ahead of time) made all the difference.
Once I heard what that sounded like, I knew how to listen for it. That's how I got better at responding. It's a good way to get in practice for the spur-of-the-moment situations.