Dealing with Toxic Family During the Holidays
In some shape or form, the holidays bring toxic family members for many of us. Maybe you’ve got a sibling who brings out your competitive nature, and somehow everything from trimming the tree to cookie decorating turns into a contest. Maybe you’ve got a dad whose codependency issues always leave you feeling like you should be doing more, giving more of your time, love, or even money. Maybe you’ve got an aunt who has to stir up drama where none exists, passing on gossip about your pregnant cousin that you’d really rather not hear. Or maybe you just have what we all have: a couple of loudmouths whose opinions are different than yours, and who can’t help but bait others into an argument.
Don’t dread the holidays this year.
Whether you’re dealing with the kinds of standard annoyances that none of us can escape from or seriously toxic family members who derail your mental and emotional health, you can go into this holiday season with a plan. In the days leading up to family time you’d rather skip, repeat the following promises to yourself like mantras. Write them down; repeat them to yourself in the car or think them to yourself on your flight. Going to your family holiday time with these mantras in mind won’t make your holidays perfect, but can help you make it through them intact.
I will manage my expectations.
Too often, we approach toxic family members with unrealistic expectations, whether consciously or unconsciously. We think to ourselves, “If I just _______________, then things will be different this time.” Maybe you think there’s some perfect argument you could make, or some perfect expression of your feelings that would help your family member(s) understand how much they need to change. But think about it: has anything that you’ve ever done in the past made your family member change? If so, fantastic! Maybe your family member is just irritating and not a toxic person, and actually is willing to work on self-improvement. But if not, then there’s no reason to believe that they’ll start now. Don’t set yourself up for more hurt and disappointment; accept what you cannot change, recognizing that it isn’t your fault and actually is all about them, not you.
I will master the art of staying quiet.
When you’re with your family, pretend that you’re just there as an experimenter coming to observe them for the day. Let them talk amongst themselves, but try just remaining a passive part of the group until spoken to. If you’re not actively engaging, you’re minimizing the chances that will someone will say something irritating, offensive, or hurtful to you. Of course, there may be times when someone says something that’s massively offensive and hurtful, whether about you or about someone else, and you feel a moral duty to respond. These situations might come up, and you should follow your conscience if they do, but to whatever extent you can, just remember that you don’t have to engage with anyone you don’t want to engage with.
I will set whatever boundaries I need.
This can take many different forms, depending on how serious your situation is. If you just suffer ordinary annoyance with your family, you might set a boundary such as, “My boyfriend and I will spend days with you while we’re here, but nights we’d like to have to ourselves for dates.” You don’t have to justify it any more than that; you’re an adult and you get to decide how you spend your time. If you have a more serious situation in your family, though, then set a more serious boundary. For instance, maybe you have a family member who’s abusive to you in some way or has been in the past. If so, then you get to say, “I will not go to any gathering where he is going to be present.” If you’re hosting, then you absolutely get to decide that someone will not be invited to your house if he or she makes you feel unsafe or unstable.
I will plan at least one person to vent with.
It might be someone who’s right there at home with you, like a sibling who’s on your wavelength, or a cousin you’re close to. It might be a friend you know you can call any time. If you don’t have someone that you typically would do this with year-round, then it would be a good idea to approach someone you love and trust before the holidays and just say, “Hey, I’ll be spending a lot of time with family soon and that’s really hard for me; would you mind being on standby for calls if I need to vent?” When your family is driving you nuts, just letting out your frustrations to a sympathetic listener will help immensely.
I will make an exit strategy.
This would only be necessary for people whose families are at the worst end of the spectrum, but if you think your family is there, then have a Plan B in mind for just getting out. Bookmark train schedules or last-minute flights you could hop on. Let a nearby friend or family member know you’re coming to town and ask if you could crash on their couch for a night or two if things get ugly. Maybe you’ll end up not needing your Plan B at all; maybe your family will surprise you and you’ll even enjoy yourself a little. It’s possible! But if you’re walking into a stressful situation, it will give you extra peace of mind just to know there’s an option out there if you need it.
Before you head home for the holidays, keep in mind the wise words of Joe Navarro, M.A., writing for Psychology Today: “Always remember that you have absolutely no social or familial obligation to be victimized – ever.” If your family doesn’t go so far as to victimize you with toxic behavior, that’s wonderful; count that as a blessing this holiday season. But if they do, then at the end of the day, you simply don’t have to spend time with them. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.
Envision Wellness is a private practice that offers psychotherapy, psychological testing, and life coaching in Miami, FL. Our team has a passion for helping others achieve happy, fulfilling, and change-making lives that make the world a better place. Each therapist has their areas of expertise. Not sure who you’d like to work with? Click here to schedule a free 20-minute phone consult to help you decide.
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