This is the time of year that many families spend time together. College students trek home, couples return with their kids, single adults walk through the door again and grandparents often travel to spend time with children and grandchildren they haven’t seen for a while. Whether it’s an extended family holiday vacation or parents and their kids getting together, these times often breed conflict.

There are always those who anticipate great family time but come away feeling disappointment. Some nurse emotional wounds and hurtful exchanges. Others feel overlooked and misunderstood. Many scratch their heads and wonder, Is this really my family? Some vow not return next year, feeling as if they simply don’t belong.

You can be accomplished, talented and respected but then you sit at this gathering feeling belittled and misjudged, as if you’re back in high school.

Here are some empowering tips that can help you get through the most difficult family get together.

1. Prepare for a Spiritual Workout

Come into the situation knowing it’s time to grow. Think to yourself: I can do this by being brave and accepting certain family realities and dynamics. I cannot change people. I can only change my reaction to those who continue to aggravate and annoy me. Once I accept this, my next step is to move on.

Ask: what is my spiritual goal here? If I’d be in the gym, I’d be sweating and exerting myself even if it means feeling discomfort or pain. The same goes for my internal self. If I want to reach a place of compassion, patience, forgiveness, and not reacting to every slight then I must step out of my comfort zone. For the first time I will finally reach serenity.

Of course it’s easy to feel good with easy going people whom I like and get along with. But what happens when I am together with those who push my buttons?

See irritating people as opportunities to lose those pesky extra spiritual pounds you’ve been lugging around. Ridding yourself of angry reactions, being snappy, and freezing yourself out of the conversation will strengthen your internal character muscles. Instead of falling prey to your negative emotions, rise above them and stand on the legs of dignity and self-respect.

2. Be a First Responder

You know what to expect: “So, you’re still not married?” “Did you ever look into getting a better paying job?” “Those pounds never came off, huh?” “Why are your kids always so wild?”

You know that you won’t be changing people’s minds about how they see you and your world. So why get into heated conversations or retreat to stony silence?

First responders come prepared. They don’t search for supplies or wonder what to do. They are cool and calm. They have adequate oxygen and are sure to avoid lethal air. Take their lead. Decide on your best response before the exchange happens and stick with it. But be sure to lose the sarcasm or biting defensive replies. Avoid toxic exchanges. You only end up hurting yourself. If you need to, take a breath and collect yourself.

You can use humor or manipulate the conversation to another direction. Prepare yourself and think of how you’d like to reply with grace. Saying things like: “I know my kids are lively, they keep me going” or “When I find my soulmate I’ll be giving you a call for sure. Thanks for always caring” are alternatives to heated exchanges. Try to give a smile.

3. Replace Anger with Pity

Instead of filling your heart with rage, try a new emotion: pity.

Feel sorry for this person who causes pain and distance from others. Feel sad for this individual who cannot allow himself to enjoy the blessing of family. This person is either insecure or hardened, so they push others down to feel better about themselves. Perhaps they went through pain or difficulty which caused them to grow a hardened shell. No matter the reason, bottom line is they are the ones losing out on the joy. Walking around always ready to do battle is an awful way to live. Fighting gear is heavy and cumbersome. It weighs you down. Who wants to be that person? Change your lens. See this irksome individual through eyes of pity and be grateful that this is not the way you live.

4. Be a Peace Leader

Become a force for change. Ask yourself: How can I inject warmth and love into this situation?

If there is someone who feels as you do, engage them. This is one who is easy to speak with, you feel comfortable with, and you don’t feel apprehensive of. Try to place yourself near this person.

Remove yourself from gossip and malicious talk.

Steer the conversation away from judgmental and heated discussions.

Lighten the mood by putting together cherished family memories in an album or think of a family game that can fill the room with activity and laughter instead of hurtful conversation.

Pay attention to others who may be feeling badly or out of the family circle. Give them extra attention.

5. Forgive

Perhaps the past may have brought harsh encounters with parents or fights with siblings. Listen carefully. Years have passed. People go through unexpected challenges never believing that this is where life has taken them. The difficult road was not in the plans and we are not always proud of the way we have journeyed or handled the pressures of dark times. Looking back, parents and children may feel ashamed of acrid words spit out or thoughtless actions done. Pushed to rage by stress is of course no excuse but there comes a moment in time where we must decide to move on.

We will not have our family forever. Open your heart to a parent who has aged, a sibling whose life has been shamed, and a child who has dealt with unexpected blows. Struggles and disappointments take us down an unexpected path. No one is immune.

If you are willing to forgive you will not feel regret when this person passes away. Let me be very clear: this is not a license to accept abuse. Rather, allow yourself to move on by letting go of the past and tapping into the generosity of spirit that lies within your soul. Use this time together to shed the battle gear and at the very least stop the antagonism. Find a smile or good word to offer, be kind, and become the better person you’ve always strived to be. Respond with integrity, not weakness. Don’t live life carrying the weight of bearing a grudge.

When family is fractured, warmth and peace are replaced with sadness and bitterness. Seize the moment to teach your children the definition of loyalty, laughter, bonding time and cherished memories. The longer you hold onto old hurts and cycles of pain, the longer it will take to heal. This year build bridges with your family. It’s time.