How To Survive Toxic Family Holidays

Do you experience headaches, gastrointestinal distress, muscle tension, extremity pain, or tightness in your jaw before, during and after large holiday gatherings? Are you suffering from insomnia, anxiety, low self-esteem and a foreboding sense of doom? That combination of symptoms sounds less like salmonella and more like sensitive feelings. You may be suffering from anticipation of or direct exposure to toxic family members or friends. Luckily, the licensed family therapists (LMFTs) at Lifeologie Counseling have some advice that might ease your anxiety. 

Who Invited These Turkeys?

In the 1800s, “talking turkey” meant being pleasant or silly. Now, it means to speak plainly, practically, and directly – but still politely. Wondering how to keep your cool when politics, religion, money, and lifestyle issues start to heat up? Our experts offer these tips to prepare yourself while you’re prepping that big bird and sides for your next family gathering. Just remember your ABC's…

Acknowledge differences. 

You can care deeply for someone and not agree with their core beliefs. Accept that you and your family have different politics, lifestyles, religions, relationships, child-rearing practices, and tastes. Chances are, they’re anticipating some stress too, but they may have different ways of coping with it than you do. If sharing family traditions is important to you, give others the grace that you expect in return, don’t assume every comment is aimed directly at you, and try to focus on the things you love about gathering with your family and friends. 

Build in Boundaries

Joining others at the table doesn’t mean you have to sit in silence when relatives spew hateful or abusive language. You have choices: Speak up and say, I’m not comfortable with this conversation, can we talk about something else? Change the subject without addressing the infraction and try to redirect the conversation before it escalates. Excuse yourself and go to the bathroom or another area for some deep breathing exercises. Find something useful to do, like taking out the garbage. Count to 10 in multiple languages. Breathe. Hold. Repeat. Avoid the temptation to over-indulge in alcohol to lower your inhibitions. 

Check in with Your Children

Young children don’t need a detailed history of Uncle Albus’ complicated rehab history, but they deserve to feel safe and seen. If you worry that a particular relative may say or do something rude, offensive, or dangerous, it’s okay to tell your kids that not everyone at the holiday gathering believes and acts according to the core values your family shares. Let them know you’ll be there and that if someone makes them feel uncomfortable, they have the power and permission to come find you or a trusted adult. You can and should expect good manners when you model them yourself, but don’t force your children to enable or embrace people they have rarely or never met. It’s up to you to break the cycle of toxic family trauma.

Don’t Let Dreams Derail Your Expectations

Ah, the Hallmark channel holidays! Food and fun for everyone, gentle lessons learned, and the guy who delivered that enormous Christmas tree was definitely a prince, your twin flame, or Santa. The holiday of your dreams is just that - a dream, and you’re destined to be disappointed if you view anything different as a total catastrophe. Manage your expectations. Try to ask yourself what is actually most important to you. How about a real hug from your mom? Or a special side dish or dessert that you look forward to all year? Introducing your partner or family to rituals and traditions that you love and learned growing up is an intimate way of sharing things that are meaningful and comforting to you. Focus on one thing you’re looking forward to and try to let the rest just happen.

Escape. Or Just Don’t Go. 

You are an adult with the power to make your own decisions. Relatives might try to manipulate you into feeling guilty or ashamed for skipping a family function, but no one is forcing you to do anything. If you decide to go, visualize how you would like to respond to trigger issues or family drama. Remember you don’t have to react at all. Silence is golden. 

If things aren’t progressing well, skip the dramatic farewells and make a quick and quiet exit. Storming out in the middle of a big gathering is impossible to do gracefully, so don’t even try. Making a scene might make you feel better in the moment, but it won’t change anyone’s behavior – or their point of view. Protect yourself from a long, drawn-out scene by limiting what you bring in so you don’t have to worry about bringing it out. What’s likely is that almost everyone is glad you came, but they aren’t going to be any more heartbroken when you leave than when the last great aunt says goodbye. 

Ask yourself honestly if you want to attend an event if it has historically filled you with anxiety, anger, worry, fear, guilt, helplessness, or trauma. If you choose to go, acknowledge that you are making that choice. Choosing not to attend is an equally valid choice. Self care is the greatest gift you can provide for your own mental health during stressful times. You don’t have to make up an elaborate excuse to spare someone’s feelings, although you can if you want to. Recognize you may have FOMO or regret with either choice you make, but at the end of the day, we hope you’re exactly where you want to be, with pets or people whom you love and who cherish you the most. 

Ready to tackle toxic family issues and focus on your own wellbeing? Find an experienced, compassionate, licensed therapist near you who’s available to help you chart your own path toward great mental health at Lifeologie Counseling.

About Lifeologie

Lifeologie Counseling was founded in 2000 with one goal in mind — to bring a fresh, innovative approach to the everyday problems of life. Creative solutions to stuck problems®. With our unique multi-specialty, collaborative approach, Lifeologie Counseling helps individuals and families heal their wounds and break out of old, unhealthy patterns.