The Holidays: Coping with Toxic Family Members

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Dr. Alyson Nerenberg

Yesterday one of my patients asked me, “Are all families as dysfunctional as mine?” I looked at her with a smile on my face and shared one of my favorite quotes: “The only perfect families are the ones you don’t know.” What that sentiment was intended to imply was that all families have some dysfunction if you look beneath the surface. Although I stand by that statement, I do want to acknowledge that some families have more toxic energy than others.

With the holidays coming up, there is often the expectation of spending more time together as a family. There are frequently overnight stays, family meals, and parties planned. The purpose of this blog post is to normalize the fact that this is a difficult time for many people. Before I begin to provide some boundaries on how to protect yourself from a toxic family situation, I want to offer the caveat that if your family is extremely toxic, it might be better for you not to visit them. For example, if there is a situation where there is abuse, extreme narcissism, or cruelty, it is OK to set a boundary and choose to not spend the holidays with abusive people. Instead, you can plan your own “Friendsgiving” or Christmas with your own healthy support group. Additionally, if you are new to recovery and know that there will be a great deal of drinking or drug use, it makes sense to protect yourself by not going.

For those of you who decide that you would like to spend time with unhealthy family members but want to stay sane while doing it, here are a few rules of survival that I would recommend.

  • Boundaries are crucial. I recommend making your visits short and sweet and often suggest making sure that you leave on a high note instead of overstaying your welcome. What that could look like could be visiting your family for a weekend instead of a full five days, or even just going over for a quick dinner instead of sleeping over.
  • Bookend your visits by calling a supportive friend both before and after your stay. The before phone call is crucial so that you can get a plan together about how you are going to take care of yourself while you are there. The after phone call is equally important so that you have a safe person to debrief with after the visit and that you are not holding onto resentments or negative energy. Also, the phone calls can remind you that you do have someone who loves you and supports you unconditionally.
  • Have a getaway plan. Identify some safe places that you can go in case the visit becomes stressful. If you are working a 12 step program, locate a nearby meeting ahead of time. If exercise is your salvation, find a local gym or yoga class that you can go to in order to blow off steam, or just figure out where you can go for a hike. One of my favorite escapes when family situations get stressful is to take the dog for a walk. Another option is to find a local Starbucks if you feel like you just want some time alone.
  • If narcissism runs rampant in your family, it is important to come up with a few statements ahead of time that you can use in order to take care of yourself. For example, “It is not okay for you to talk to me in that tone of voice” or “Excuse me while I take a few minutes.”
  • BYOLAAA- Bring your own love, acceptance, and approval. Instead of bringing a bottle of wine, bring your own sense of self-acceptance. There may be people in your family, for whatever reason, who just do not get you. That is OK. You do not need their approval in order to survive. Many years ago, I counseled a man whose mantra was that he was going to walk into the room (whatever room he was entering) as if he were already loved.
  • You can leave at any time if you feel disrespected. Life is too short to put up with being treated badly. It is up to you to protect yourself by leaving any toxic situation.

These are just a few strategies that I share with patients in order to help them stay sane while visiting family during the holiday season. Feel free to talk with a trusted friend or your therapist in order to add any additional boundaries that are specific to your own situation.

Wishing you a healthy, happy, and sane holiday season.

*****

This article originally appeared on Dr. Alyson Nerenberg’s website. It is reposted here with her permission.