You’ve been dreading it all week; the anxiety like a boat taking on water sinks to the bottom of your stomach. You’ve been reciting dialogue and possible scenarios in your head while driving to work. You’ve mapped out the event, the guest list, all the exit doors in case you need to make a run for it.
It sounds like preparing for battle, but what if all of this stress is over something as simple as Thanksgiving dinner or a Christmas Eve gift exchange?
Is everyone else’s family as crazy as mine?
Well yes and no.
Everyone’s family is unique and even a bit quirky at times, but not everyone has a family or family member who creates havoc during holiday gatherings. Remember, most of us have individuated from our family, which makes it triggering when something happens that we are not in alignment with. For some of us, it is quite literally like going into battle when it comes to spending time with family during the holidays, and just as you wouldn’t charge into an unsafe territory without supplies or a strategy, you won’t want to interact with a dysfunctional or difficult family without some proper planning.
Yes, spending time with family is a bit obnoxious, but is it harmful?
A complicated family dynamic or dysfunctional family member are people or person who shows signs of some or all of these characteristics:
- Has no filter or is very negligent with their speech.
- Seems to get angry with little provocation, and often disproportionally so.
- Enjoys conflict (suspicious, opinionated, rigid in thinking) and creates situations that provoke conflict.
- Needs to be the center of attention and becomes hypersensitive or victimized when not included in a conversation, activity, etc.
- Collects injustices that they then hold onto for extended periods of time.
Why do they affect us so much?
We often want to believe that spending time with family during the holidays won't have the power to ruin our enjoyment or self-confidence. However, though we might vent to friends over a bottle of wine reciting phrases such as, “It doesn’t even affect me anymore,” or “I’m just over their drama,” we still find ourselves preparing for the holidays all the same: exhausting possible outcomes, tip-toeing over specific topics, and fighting the urge to sprint out the door.
Enough with "10 step guides to getting along"... How do we survive the holidays, really?
Here’s the thing: There is no easy fix to overcome a difficult family or family member. The drama, guilt trips, and judgments are not usually spurred by your actions at the family gathering but by individuals feeding their insecurities and jealousies.
You are not going to solve the issues of your family over turkey dinner. Try to maintain perspective and differentiate yourself from your family during the holidays. Easier said than done, yes?
There are a few helpful tools that you can add to your emotional arsenal such as:
- Setting boundaries. Decide ahead what you will and will not tolerate.
- Exercising some compassion. Take a 5-second pause before engaging to ask, “Is this even about me?”
- Making an exit plan. We tolerate a great deal of grief from our family members, but everyone has a limit. Your safety and sense of self is paramount. So know how and when it’s time to go. Keep in mind your boundaries.
- Deciding ahead of time what topics of conversations to avoid. No reason to poke the beast.
If you feel like, “I’m going to need therapy after tonight,” you’re probably right.
Often, spending time with family (especially if there is a delicate family dynamic) leaves us feeling emotionally drained or even traumatized to some degree. It is vital for your mental health that you do not accept the dysfunctional behavior as usual or brush off the trauma you’ve experienced.
After the holidays, take time to process the events. This process might be seeking out comfort from friends or sitting down with a professional to help you heal.
Ultimately, surviving family during the holidays is about knowing how to differentiate yourself and your life from the people who are bringing drama as a side dish to dinner. This ability is going to require gathering a set of tools and practices that keep you sane and within your limits of what you feel comfortable doing.