10 Tips to Survive the Holidays with A Toxic Family

Thank you to Amy Marlow for sharing this great article with us!

Ah, the holidays: The scents of roasted turkey, apple pie, and Christmas cookies filling the air. Snuggling up in a cozy blanket, gazing dreamily into the flickering fireplace as you sip on a hot apple cider or decadent eggnog. Pretty lights, rich and vibrant colors all over, and that peaceful softness that comes with snowfall.

Oh, and the annual snark from your narcissistic mother about how you need to grow up and stop being so jealous of others…because you had the audacity to look hurt when your sister’s Christmas present was an Apple watch, and yours was a mop.

Ah, the holidays.

Ok, maybe you never found a mop under the Christmas tree (or maybe you did). But for individuals raised in emotionally immature or narcissistic families, the holidays tend to be a trying time. Every Hallmark movie featuring a tearful reconnection between estranged family members is like pouring lemon juice on an open wound. Navigating family events, holiday activities, and gifting opportunities without setting off an explosion is like walking a tightrope. Over lava. In high heels that are two sizes too small.

If this sounds familiar, take heart! The holidays can be a rough time, but there are things you can do to stop yourself from falling into the lava. Setting and maintaining healthy boundaries can help you maintain your balance, walk more confidently, or even choose to step away from the tightrope entirely.

Check out these 10 tips to help you maintain healthy boundaries and make it through the holiday season:

1. Decide on your “why.” You may be invited to several holiday-related events. Be curious about whether you feel compelled or obligated to attend any/all of them. What motivates your decision to attend? Are you engaging by your own choice, or out of fear, obligation, or guilt? What do you fear would happen if you did not participate?

2. Say “Yes” selectively, and “No” deliberately. Each invitation and expectation is an opportunity to respond with “yes” or “no.” Think about what you are and are not willing to do, give, see, or say. Saying “yes” to everything is a recipe for overwhelm, exhaustion, and resentment. But saying “no” to everything could leave you isolated and lonely. Try to avoid knee-jerk reactions that back you into a corner. Knowing your “why” will help you decide when the answer needs to be yes or no.

3. Be mindful of your triggers. It is impossible to completely avoid triggers in life – and it wouldn’t be good for you to hole up and avoid everything potentially upsetting or painful in life even if you could. But you don’t have to throw yourself into situations that you know are likely to push you over the edge. What kinds of interactions, comments, statements, or events make you most upset? Which interactions and activities drain or deplete you? What gives you nightmares, flashbacks, or makes you feel paralyzed? Be choosy about how much you expose yourself to triggering events when you have the choice.

4. Choose your level of engagement. Not every comment, look, etc calls for a response. Not every response needs to be verbal. Decide how much emotional energy you are willing and able to invest in a given interaction, and don’t let yourself be pulled farther in. You can’t stop someone else from trying to provoke you, but you don’t have to take the bait.

5. Prepare your rinse and repeat responses. When you do need to respond, it is helpful to prepare responses that you can repeat and reiterate as needed to avoid being drawn into a conversation you’re not interested in pursuing. Try one or more of the following:

· “That’s not up for discussion.”

· “I understand that you’re upset, but this is my decision.”

· “I’m sorry you don’t like my choice, but I stand by it.”

· “I prefer not to discuss this.”

· “If you continue to bring this up, I will not continue the conversation.”

6. Don’t dive into the punch bowl. It can be tempting to turn to alcohol or other substances to feel calm enough to be around difficult people. Resist, or at least temper, the temptation to fill up on liquid courage and pace yourself. Don’t put yourself in a bad position by drinking or using to the point of losing all your inhibitions. You will ultimately be more emotionally (and physically) safe if you are in control of yourself.

7. Watch for signs of escalation. Family meltdowns can seemingly come out of nowhere, but often you can see the signs of the approaching apocalypse. Think about the patterns and cycles you know of in your family. If you know that mom bringing up the impeachment hearings is guaranteed to start a fight with your brother-in-law, don’t feel like you need to stick around to play peacemaker. Give yourself permission to walk away or choose not to take part in a situation that is guaranteed to escalate.

8. Have an exit strategy. Keep your options open so that you can leave when the time feels right for you. In practical terms, try to park at the end of a line so you aren’t parked in. Do your best to avoid being dependent on someone you don’t trust to leave a situation that becomes unhealthy. If you are attending with a spouse or partner, consider coming up with a codeword or nonverbal signal to let them know it’s time to go.

9. Plan at least one event or activity that is just for you. Self-care is always crucial, but it is critically important at the times in your life when stress peaks. Holidays are peak stress time for many, especially those with difficult FOO. Don’t wait until you are melting down. Be proactive and create time and space to care for yourself.

10. Spend as much time as you can with the people who love, support, celebrate, and appreciate you. Family is not only blood. Found family is invaluable, and you don’t have to feel bad about choosing time with them over time with people who tear you down. Fill your cup with the loving energy of those who care about and value you. And don’t forget the marshmallows 🙂


© Amy Marlow-MaCoy, 2019

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