The holidays conjure a profusion of warm images of families. Families gathering for delicious meals around an elegantly set dining room table … families exchanging beautifully wrapped gifts and hearty laughter … families recalling old—and making new—memories.
And then there’s reality.
Few families are perfect. Many involve toxic relatives that can be more easily managed (or avoided altogether) during other times of the year.
A toxic family member can be someone who constantly makes cruel comments to one who gives you the silent treatment—and everything in between!
Dealing with toxic relatives can be particularly complicated around the holidays, when obligation and guilt create seemingly unbreakable ties to your family of origin. Weighing the harm you experience around your family against the benefits can be tricky.
The good news is that there are several proactive steps you can take to set reasonable boundaries—and maintain family harmony.
8 Ways to Enjoy the Holidays—Despite Toxic Relatives
1. Set realistic expectations.
We tend to expect more—of ourselves and others—during the holiday season than we do during any other time of year. And our families expect more of us. As a result, we wind up stressed, tired and resentful, relegating holiday perfection to Hallmark-channel movies.
Understand that everyone has different expectations around the holidays; not all of those expectations—including your own—will be met.
As hard as you wish, your difficult family members are not going to change between now and Christmas. They’re still going to be the same (annoying, difficult, dramatic, unreliable) people around the holiday dinner table that they’ve been all year. And because the holidays are so inherently stressful, they often bring out the worst in people.
2. Know your limits.
Using last year’s holiday celebrations as a template, think about what went well—and what didn’t. What can you tolerate for the sake of keeping the family peace? What would you like to handle differently (or avoid altogether) this year for the sake of your own sanity?
Think about the people you’re willing to see, the topics you’re willing to discuss, and the responsibilities you’re willing to accept. While you may not be able to avoid unreasonable requests from toxic relatives, knowing your limits will help you respond with intention.
If you know that a two-night stay at the in-laws’ is about all you can handle, schedule the visit accordingly. Have strategies in place to get some alone-time to recharge. Volunteer to make an airport run, walk the dog or pick up the pies.
Give yourself permission to decline invitations to events that are just too taxing or triggering.
3. Deflect and diffuse.
You can’t control when toxic relatives make hurtful remarks or bring up uncomfortable subjects—but you can control how you react.
Rehearse a few responses to intrusive questions. When Aunt Nora (predictably) asks when you and your boyfriend are “finally” going to tie the knot, beat the awkward silence with a quick “Oh, you’ll be the first to know!”
Proactively think of ways to deflect. When politics or other hot-button issues might put you on the spot or stir the family pot, politely suggest that these are topics better saved for another time. Then pivot to a new, lighter topic. Commenting on the delicious meal or the unpredictable weather are great ways to diffuse potential conversational landmines.
4. Remain an adult.
It’s not uncommon to regress to old childhood patterns when you spend time with your family of origin, especially when negative emotions surface. Try to be aware of this tendency. Catch yourself if you slip back into “the rebel,” “the underdog” or any other role you may have assumed with your parents or siblings.
5. Limit your consumption.
It may seem counterintuitive, but try to limit your alcohol use during the holidays. While you might think a glass of wine (or two …) will relax you, alcohol actually lowers your inhibitions, making it hard to stay true to your convictions.
6. Let it go.
If you have toxic family members, especially those with personality disorders (like narcissism or borderline personality disorder), don’t use the holidays as an opportunity to educate them. It won’t work—and you’ll both wind up frustrated, disappointed and angry. Instead, remain cordial, but emotionally distant.
Don’t take things personally. Know that your family member’s behaviors (or words) actually have nothing to do with you, but are their way of coping with their own stress. You are not the cause of that stress; it is not your job to eliminate it.
7. Increase self-care.
It’s easy to become overwhelmed by difficult family members when you’re depleted. Do whatever it takes to manage your stress. Exercise. Meditate. Do yoga. Read a book. Take a bath. Get a massage. Go for a walk.
Try to stay ahead of the game to avoid last-minute holiday shopping. Do as much meal prepping as you can ahead of time. The less stressed you feel before a family gathering, the stronger you’ll feel while in the presence of toxic relatives.
Remember the oxygen mask theory! Taking care of yourself first ensures that you’ll have the emotional and physical energy to tend to others. As tempting as it might be, don’t skimp on sleep or meals in the weeks leading up to the holidays.
Even while hosting out-of-town guests or being a guest at someone else’s home, try to maintain your “normal” routine as much as possible. Predictability breeds comfort and safety.
8. Create new holiday traditions.
Toxic relatives can feel engulfing. Creating new traditions for your own immediate family—even if that family unit is just you and your dog—can add authentic meaning to the holidays.
If you have young kids, follow their lead. Be silly. Have fun. Some of the best family holiday memories come from unplanned, magical moments. New traditions can be shaped at any time.
In the same vein, old traditions can evolve. Trying to force outdated traditions on yourself or your family is a recipe for frustration and disappointment.
Fraught with expectation, holidays can be both joyful—and stressful. Families can be both wonderful—and difficult. Accepting that balance can help you survive spending time with toxic relatives, and enjoy the beauty of the season.
Why just survive when you can learn to thrive?
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