The holidays appear to be stressful for everyone—too much to do and too little time to do it in—but the specific stress of dealing with family when relationships are at best frayed and at worst toxic is something else entirely. Every year, I get messages from people asking for help in dealing with events and gatherings, so I thought I’d round up what I’ve learned actually works.
How to navigate potentially stormy waters
You deal with them proactively by coming up with a plan and sticking to it. If you are still participating in events with your family of origin, you have to remember that you’re an adult now and no matter what anyone says, you are allowed to set boundaries and rules, chief among them being that no one has the right to be abusive. Most important, you must set your own goals and expectations so that you are prepared, remembering that no one can push your buttons unless you allow them to. You need to be clear about your own behavior, remembering that you can’t control how other people act but that you are the captain of your own ship. Don’t think of yourself as helpless in the situation because you’re not.
As you gather your thoughts about what you want to happen, bring to mind the predictable scripts that are bound to surface and how you are going to deal with them. You know Uncle Joe has political views that are antithetical to yours; how will you deal? You’re pretty sure your mother will play the usual favorites game—criticizing you and fawning over your sister—so decide ahead of time how you’re going to respond. Your brother-in-law is hugely competitive but are you going to play tit-for-tat? No one can push your buttons without your permission.
If you have gone low contact without ever articulating why you’ve put distance between you and your mother and family, family gatherings may be incredibly stressful because by avoiding overt conflict, you’ve escalated potential conflict. You may want to rethink why you’ve avoided making a statement and whether that’s right for you and your children and spouse, if you have them, going forward. Yes, it’s easier to duck for cover than it is actually speaking your mind—and there’s way less pushback—but it will probably create more problems in the long run. Remember that being clear about your position and expectations doesn’t mean you have to start World War III.
Is clarity the best route going forward? Think about it.
Getting clear about intentions
If the response you get to setting boundaries is unreasonable or angry pushback or stony silence and a refusal to listen, spend time thinking about why you’re still attending the gathering; weigh the pros and cons ahead of time. Again, conscious awareness is key and if this is just another cycle of the core conflict—and you’re going to try to get love and validation once again—you may want to rethink why you are attending. If you’re unsure whether or not you should attend, do ask yourself the following questions. Again, it’s better to write your answers down so that you can review them later. You will be more consciously aware confronting your words on the page, rather than just thinking about your answers.
- Do I feel pressured to attend? What are those pressures and where are they coming from?
- What is my motive for attending the event? Do I have a specific goal or goals?
- Am I in command of my emotions so I won’t react out of habit or respond to old triggers?
- Am I clear about behaviors I won’t accept and how I will deal with them if they happen? You need to answer this in detail.
- Are my expectations realistic or am I being overly optimistic? Are my goals realistic?
Preparing yourself emotionally and mentally
Unrealistic expectations appear to be the leading cause for unpleasantness, such as assuming that old patterns of behavior will magically disappear, that everyone is determined to get along, and that, somehow, you’ll find your family has been transformed into the one you’ve always wanted—some version of a Norman Rockwell painting or of the commercials you see everywhere. Keep in mind that while there are families like that, some 40-50% of us haven’t experienced them. You’re neither an outlier nor are you alone.
Remember that while you should always be polite, good manners don’t include overlooking disparagement or cruelty; keep your reaction tempered but pretending something hasn’t been said or done actually won’t help. Don’t tolerate abusive behavior leveled at you or your loved ones. You have every right to hold people accountable, even during the holidays.
If you find yourself filled with dread as the date approaches, consider cutting the visit short, if need be. Don’t feel as though you must say “yes” to every demand and revert to the old habit of pleasing so as not to roil the waters.
If you’ve decided to participate in a family gathering, make sure that you’re ready not to participate in someone else’s drama. Your best self can show up.
This post has been adapted from my book, The Daughter Detox Question & Answer Book: A GPS for Navigating Out of a Toxic Childhood. Copyright © Peg Streep 2019. All rights reserved.
Photograph by Caroline Hernandez. Copyright free. Unsplash.com