As family get-togethers are more frequent this time of year, many people find dealing with difficult, painful or otherwise challenging family relationships, unavoidable. It is specially hard to cope with family issues and the stress of holidays if you are also coping with depression, anxiety, bi-polar disorder, or other mental illnesses.
As those of you who’ve read Therapy Revolution know, we’re big on figuring out what your agenda is. Sure, life doesn’t always (or even usually) go according to plan, but identifying your goals and choosing and practicing methods that will help you achieve your goals takes some of the anxiety out of difficult situations.
Your goal is to enjoy (if possible) your family get-togethers or at least minimize and cope with the triggers, stress, and conflict that may arise.
Holiday visits are the time to focus on the good stuff and if possible, ignore or avoid the painful stuff, or at least you want to confront the painful stuff in a healthy way. You want to maintain your equilibrium and not let all the family stuff get to you.
A plan can help. Perhaps you might consider making a “No Dumping” policy for yourself the lynchpin of your plan. And make the “for yourself” part of the lynchpin, key. Make a compact with yourself—and hope, but don’t expect—your family members to honor your policy.
Step 1: Define “dumping”. Is it bad news, insults, snide remarks, verbal attacks, blaming and finger-pointing, put downs, complaints, insults, etc? You get to decide what qualifies.
Step 2: Define the plan. Our version, follows:
A. You will not accept anyone dumping on you, and will forestall this, depending on your family’s dynamics and the individual’s ability to recognize and respect your request, by letting family members know that you don’t want to be and will not allow yourself to be on the receiving end of dumping.
B. You will not dump on anyone else! It is essential that even if provoked, you don’t “dump” on anyone else, especially in a situation such as a family meal where even “calling it like you see it” can quickly devolve into a dumping match. In dumping matches, nobody wins.
Step 3: Implement your plan:
You might want to let mom or siblings or great-uncle Ned know in your policy in advance. You might find it helpful to tell them what your response will be if they cross the dumping line. You might ask them to agree to respect your wishes. You might choose to remind them of the No Dumping policy you have set. If they do it again, you might up-the-consequences, such as leaving the room.
In all honesty, most truly abusive family members are not going to respect your policy. In fact, we just heard the story from someone (which is how we got thinking about a no-dumping policy in the first place) that she explained to her mom how much her snide remarks hurt her and her mother thought this was hilarious and upped the ante! If you are fairly certain the family member(s) will not respect your wishes, don’t tell them about your No Dumping policy. Just make the policy and honor it, yourself.
If they dump, implement your action plan. Confront them right at that moment in time if you feel it will prevent them from dumping anymore. Remove yourself from the situation if that is what you decide to do. Depending on whether or not they’ll escalate the situation (and you know best since you have your past experience to guide you), you might decide that going to your room or even leaving is best.
Sometimes, the best we can do is avoid allowing ourselves to be abused and avoid abusing others.
Finally, Step 4, a bonus step: Shift your expectations. If you have family encounters that trigger your anxiety, depression, etc., set your standards low. Tell yourself what you can expect and how you will handle it. Give your plan an escape clause. And don’t expect to change anyone’s behavior—except yours.
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Last reviewed: 19 Dec 2011