At times, the holiday season is more about survival than celebration, especially when dealing with toxic family members. Indeed, the holidays are stressful enough as it is. But throw in an alcoholic aunt, controlling mother or a hyper-critical father and you’ve got a disastrous recipe for sheer pain on your hands.
If you must face even one toxic relative this holiday season, these seven ways can protect you and help you navigate your way forward as sanely and serenely as possible.
1. Practice Extreme Self-Care. Do not skip your meditation practice, start binging on fast food, or neglect getting a full night’s sleep. When preparing yourself for a possible confrontation, your emotional, mental, spiritual, and physical space must be sound. The calmer your nerves, the likelier you’ll go the distance without over-reacting. Making self-care a priority is the foundational building block to surviving the festive season.
2. Do Not Try to Work Out Your Childhood Issues During Christmas Dinner. Drinking four glasses of Pinot Grigio and yelling at your parents about what happened when you were in Grade 10 isn’t going to change a thing for anyone. The holidays are the worst time to unpack a lifetime of trauma. Save those thoughts and feelings for the therapist’s couch, brunch with a close friend, or a thoughtful meeting with a family member. Throwing a dinner roll at your brother or kicking your father’s chair during dinner cannot solve any issue, even if you think it’ll feel good.
3. Begin to See Being Triggered as an Opportunity. No one can get under your skin like your own family. But, getting triggered by the same scenarios when spending time with relatives can actually be viewed as an opportunity. Old childhood drama that can arise during family holidays are an opportunity, not a conspiracy to make you lose your mind. Look at the triggers that appear as a chance to get more clarity about past trauma or dysfunctional family dynamics.
4. Understand How Your Family Views You. Does your Aunt Margot look at you as a rebellious teenager although you’re long past being 21 years old? Does your dad view you as a directionless bohemian? If we get in their heads and see what they see, we’re more able to defuse our own reactivity to their condescending attitudes or behavior. Once you figure out and accept that your immediate family still see you as a troubled 12-year-old, it can help you put things in perspective. Once you get perspective on a situation, you become empowered. Equipped with a frame of reference for the person you’re dealing with will empower you and protect you from the toxic soup being served.
5. Spend the Least Amount of Time You Can Around Toxic Relatives. If you’re planning on staying at the home of a toxic family member during the holidays, consider better alternatives. Could you stay at a hotel or friend’s home? If that is impossible, keep yourself busy and out of the pathway of the toxic relative. Take regular walks, go to the movies (perhaps with another family member), help around the house, anything to keep you occupied and, in turn, less available to the toxic person in your life.
6. Have an Exit Strategy. Let family members know in advance you have a short amount of time to visit because of prior obligations. By giving them fair warning about your departure date, you lower the chances of having a confrontation. Toxic people tend to feed off of others. That means they’ll want you in their presence as much as humanly possible. By announcing ahead of time your visit will be brief, you’re keeping the odds in your favor of encountering less friction or conflict. And if all else fails, show up late and leave early.
7. Go No Contact. If you feel you can no longer tolerate being around a toxic family member (or members), cutting off all contact might be your best solution. Bottom line is: We must take care of ourselves—if any person in our lives is causing us mental or emotional anguish, with no end in sight, walking away may be the right course of action. Don’t overthink this, either. Trust your gut and do whatever’s necessary to save yourself from toxic torment.
Spending time with family over the holidays can be stressful, but with some pre-game planning, you can keep your cool and even enjoy yourself. This year, go in calm, knowledgeable, and strong. When a toxic family member approaches, make use of one (or more) of these empowering options.