How to Survive Stressful Family Members During the Holidays
Grudges, heavy drinking, political debates, arranging and rearranging of holiday schedules, comparing lives, and mean-spirited gossip . Maybe this is the year you give yourself the gift of time away from your family.
Which family members cause you the most stress?
It's almost here! Not the anticipated arrival of the holidays season, but the visit from my in-laws. The imminent visit is a blaring reminder that I have certain family members that are impossible to deal with . . . the ones that find fault with me no matter what I say or do, but are kind enough (sarcasm) not to tell me to my face (they'll wait to talk about me behind my back). Yep! Happy Holidays!
One family member likes to drink (a lot—breakfast, noon, and dinner drinking). He can get angry when drinking, but everyone is supposed to excuse him for these drunk outbursts that are personally insulting. He says things he doesn't mean (which are very mean), yet never takes responsibility.
Sad thing is, many people in the family look for his approval. I don't want his approval, which obviously makes me the offensive one. It would be a whole lot easier to "go along" with the dysfunctional pattern, but I simply can't. It hurts me, people close to me, and it hurts the disturbed family member(s) by enabling them.
I see this scenario played out in numerous families. The most abusive one gets all the respect. The most unhinged member is adored and coddled. Fighting an addiction? Other members have plenty of excuses for that.
Often the only healthy individual finds themselves standing on an island of their own, watching the manipulators, gossipers, and the abusers repeat a vicious cycle.
My husband's family has a history of being burdened with addictions and depression. He overcame and changed the legacy for his own family we have together. I admire him because he's done nothing short of turn his life around. However, his family represents the painful past and triggers old issues . . . then we have to recover from their visit. It is better than having to deal with them year round, but this one visit can set us three months back.
His family would like to interfere with anything that resembles healthy and good for him. They'd love to destroy the family we created because they have already done so for themselves (his brother? 6 divorces).
First, ask yourself this: What gets you down about seeing family? Once you cut through the vague sense of dread about family gatherings and identify specific problems, you can deal with them directly.— WebMD
Holidays are big triggers for family issues. Some of us can gulp it down with a heaping helping of turkey and ignore it. Others have opted out of family get-togethers altogether because second helpings of psychological abuse are no longer appetizing.
Have you tried it all?
- Keep your distance.
- Tolerate occasionally.
- Set boundaries.
- Be civil at all costs.
- Fervently and tirelessly try to maintain the family relationship.
- Accept it.
- Ignore it.
- Screw it.
- Give up.
Have you asked yourself what the payoff is for tolerating certain family members? Why do you tolerate it? I realized it made me physically ill to see some family members.
This is important to note! Why would I do that to myself? Why would I allow my kids to see me this way? I won't! It's a decision I wrestle with every year, but I have to consider myself.
For too long it was never a personal choice, because I knew my boundaries would affect others. Seeing family meant I was doing "the right thing" or "helping keep the family together."
Not my (or your) responsibility!
Have you considered . . . ?
- Will they blame the division of family on you; the one person that draws the boundaries?
- Will it blow the chances of reuniting the entire family?
- Will it put others in an awkward spot?
- Will new problems arise?
- How will it impact others?
If most of these questions pop up in your head during the holiday gatherings, then likely you've considered everything but yourself. You would drive yourself nuts trying to make everyone else feel at ease while you harbor the stress.
The decision rests on you. I know that's not the answer you want, but you have likely tried everything else . . . and it's been for the sake of others, not you.
Why am I doing things that make me miserable?
The limit of your self-abuse is the limit you will tolerate from other people. Nobody hurts us worse than ourselves, therefore we make the rules up about how we are to be treated, and what we think we deserve based on the wounds we learned growing up— Don Miguel Ruiz
Time to Change?
Being mistreated by family members doesn't make sense or can seem unfair. The reason for this is that that you allow it, not that you deserve it. There's a distinct difference in that. You allowed it when you were younger because you didn't have much choice; you were likely manipulated because you were dependent on them for something (love, acceptance, shelter, food, money). Things have changed!
It's time to revisit the family dynamics:
- Are you an adult (not dependent on family members)?
If you are independent of your family, you do not need to tolerate their manipulations or abuse. If they are adults, they do not need you to "protect" them or "help" them. If you need love and acceptance from them, you must address that personally. Once that is addressed, you may try out the relationships with the family member(s) again.
- Do you have your own kids/family?
You can't pass down the family "legacy" of abuse to your own family. You are setting an example. They are not sacrificial lambs to offer your extended family for abuse. It is best to focus on them, and make this your #1 priority.
- How do YOU feel when the family member(s) are around?
I checked myself, and I felt physically ill. Big red flag! Does it simply make you nervous? Or sick? Your gut reaction and body sometimes know more than your mind gives them credit for. Listen to your gut responses.
- Have you run out of excuses?
Maybe you're trying to keep them away with excuses, but they're getting suspicious. Be more vague: "I can't make it this year." "I'm not going to be able to come. Sorry." If they ask more detail, reiterate, "I just got some things going on."
Where does it stop? Family issues get passed down, because nobody has broken the cycle for the kids in the next generation.
If you are going to visit with troubled family members, here are some survival tips:
- Prepare emotionally and psychologically. Forget about ideal relationships. This is survival. Keep things superficial without divulging a lot of your private life. Avoid questions. Some family members take any info as ammo.
- If something hurtful is said or done, simply say, "That's hurtful". It gives the behavior acknowledgment without personalizing it.
- Change the subject . . . often if you have to. For those who spew psychological abuse, you can walk away, give vague answers, or change subjects. This isn't as much fun for them.
- Personally practice healthy living. During the holiday season, you’re more likely to be stressed out by more than the usual obligations and errands; it's cold season and your immune system is down, darker days, eating unhealthier foods, shopping, time constraints, and less sleep. The holiday stress makes it harder to cope with your family. Treat yourself well. The more you practice your own version of healthy living, the less effective dysfunctional family members are.
- Limited time around problem family members means perhaps you go to the Thanksgiving function but not any other events. Limit your time and use an excuse if you have to so that you can get away at any time. Various other family members can keep in touch with you in other ways if they want to.
- Take a break before the event. This can go two ways . . . take a de-stressing timeout or mini vacation beforehand. Take a time out from troubled family members, and those associated with them, before going to an event. A detox. This helps induce clarity to see the issues at face value without all the drama and emotional or psychological interruptions.
- Separate your adult self from your childhood. We have a tendency to go back to the injured or needy child when confronted with certain family members. We all play a role and we immediately re-enter it when around family again. Keep your eye on the adult world you have created—remind yourself who you've become on your own without family influence. They must know and see you as you are now.
- Be aware of negative patterns. Dysfunctional family patterns repeat themselves like a room full of bad wallpaper. Recognize bad patterns and don't repeat them. Refuse to join in the gossip or insulting, etc.
- Take control! The first way to take control during holidays is with your time. Do less than you usually do. Perhaps you don't have time to make your usual dish or attend ALL the events. You can't be bothered with extra constraints on your time. If you stay aware of your time, you will be less likely to do things the way they've always been done, further disrupting the patterns.
- Don't expect an ideal family. Expectations get us in trouble. We might want things to go a certain way in our family, but they do not...and never will. Don't expect to have a great, heart-warming relationships with your mother for instance, if she has never treated you well. It may never happen before she dies even. Drop the expectations.
Your Own Approach . . .
The things you can do all year long to avoid stressful family situations:
- Self-care: Family stress is twice as excruciating when you are not caring for yourself. Research ways to practice good self-care habits. You will find your whole perspective changes when dealing with any kind of stress as long as you are addressing it within yourself.
- Be on the offense: you do not have to be the one carrying the family burdens. My father was a lawyer and he taught me to always be on the offense, not the defense. Catch yourself from being put on the defensive by others. Do not over-explain anything to them. In fact, you owe no explanations. Turn it around on the other person. In most cases, questions can be defused by answering the question with a question." Return fire with, "How would you feel if I asked you that?" or "What do you think I'll say?" By doing so, you force them to answer their own question, or at least tip their hand to what they want to hear from you. You can start the conversations and you can direct them how you want them to go.
Is It Time to Cut Ties With Family?
- When and How to Cut the Ties of Bad Family Relationships
There may come a time when you have endured a harmful and stressful family relationship, and you may wonder if cutting ties is right for you.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.