Dealing with Family on the Holidays

“Dealing” with family. It would be nice if everybody was able to cherish their family time in the manner the holiday classics envision, but sadly, this isn’t reality for many people. The holidays have a way of bringing families together, but for some, being together means inevitable chaos and dysfunction.

For many, growing up with family wasn’t a safe and cozy cocoon as much as it was a chaotic, exhausting, intrusive, unsafe (emotionally and/or physically), overwhelming environment that lacked a sense of healthy boundaries. For people in this boat, seeing family for the holidays is more likely to bring up anxiety, tension, fear, obligation, and other feelings in anticipation of the judgment, criticism, and other boundary violations that await. If this is familiar to you, sometimes getting through the family time unscathed becomes a greater focus than the quality of the togetherness.

Here are a few ways to make it through the holidays with family chaos:

  1. Know your boundaries — the types of dynamics discussed above tend to be fraught with inconsistent and sometimes non-existent boundaries. In these cases, know what your own boundaries are (in various ways — in conversations, activities, unsolicited advice, control, criticism, etc.) and have a plan in mind to enforce your boundaries as needed (whether directly or indirectly enforced).
  2.  Say “No” when needed — going along with people who break your boundaries without awareness or care can actually take a hit on our own self-esteem. Usually after the incidents, we start to wonder what happened, why we let them get to us, why we couldn’t be stronger, and it actually lends to a belief that we aren’t good enough. We start to experience the dysfunction as our own, rather than something coming from the environment.
  3. Remove yourself — you’re not obligated to take part in conversations or activities that cross your boundaries and make you uncomfortable. Leaving the room, or the environment altogether, if necessary, are ways out if you feel that you are going to be run over. When our boundaries are run over, we’re the ones who suffer from it.
  4. Don’t be a martyr — martyrs in narcissistic family dynamics don’t always realize they are in this role, but they often become the ones most impacted by the negative dynamics. The martyrs are generally the peacemakers. They are the ones who ignore their own needs while doing whatever is asked of them in order to keep the peace. They end up being the one holding the peace together for the family by making sure nothing becomes uncomfortable or tense. While this lends to superficially getting along, it generally involves walking over our own boundaries to make sure this happens. Many end up going through their life playing this role in dynamics, which generally leads to a feeling that you can never get your needs met and that you’re always caring for everyone else around you while taking the hit. The reality is, there is going to be some discomfort in life, and if you’re going into every dynamic making sure their isn’t any, then your needs end up in the back seat. So, when dealing with family, try to maintain your boundaries, and if other people’s issues surface, allow their issues to be their issues. If they cause discord, it’s not your mess to prevent. This is where you can choose to remove yourself if needed.
  5. Mentally prepare — if you know your family fits into the description above, be ready for the chaos. If you expect to leave depleted by the end, it may not hit you quite as hard than if you’re thinking that this time it will be different, and then it’s not.

This isn’t an exhaustive list. Just keep in mind that if your family tends to be the boundary-pushing type, you don’t have to deal with it in the same way you may have had to when growing up. Obviously it won’t be perfect, but it may be helpful to see that you have control over yourself and your personal space in these environments, rather than being controlled by the chaos around you.

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