The holidays alone bring enough stress and anxiety to our lives. Throw in a family that is demanding, self-centered, even abusive, and the stress and anxiety grow exponentially. The holidays can leave people feeling drained and unappreciated.
People from dysfunctional families who have trouble setting boundaries with difficult family members find it even more challenging to do so during the holiday season. Many people grew up hearing controlling phrases like “You’ll regret if you don’t see me…” or “That’s not the way to act during Christmas [or this difficult time].” With dysfunctional family members, there is never going to be a good time for you to tell them your true feelings. Sadly and unfortunately, family members that are used to taking advantage of or manipulating others to get what they want use the holidays as a means to continue their destructive and controlling behavior… and get away with it. While it is completely normal for families to disagree and argue during the holidays, it is not normal for family members to threaten, coerce, demand, or manipulate loved ones. This is abuse.
The way to tell the difference between a healthy family and an unhealthy one is to ask yourself how you feel after visiting with family: Do you feel respected (at the minimum), or do you go home feeling emotionally drained and depressed? The latter is an indicator that your boundaries are being violated, and you may need to rethink how you really want to spend your precious time and resources.
Here are some tips to help keep health and happiness in perspective this holiday season.
1.) Locate a solid support system. Find a trusted friend, family member, clergyman, mentor, or counselor to hold you accountable for keeping your boundaries and to talk to when the pressures of family are too strong to endure. Many books offer different advice on this topic, but one common thread is that they all state that having a support system is essential in successfully dealing with difficult family. You are not alone!
2.) Log your thoughts. It’s a smart idea to keep track of your feelings and thoughts, especially during difficult times of the year. Sometimes just writing an entry or two can release a lot of stress and built-up anxiety. It can also help you to decide what you will and will not tolerate from difficult family members. Who better to trust amidst volatility than your own intuition and instincts!
3.) Don’t own their problems. Sometimes family members think they can dump their problems and insecurities onto others. They are the ones with the problem –not you! Refuse to blame yourself for others’ unresolved issues. You have a right to not listen to negative talk and demeaning words toward you or your loved ones. Manipulative people will try to blame you for their unhappiness. Do not listen and distance yourself from this type of behavior. Watch out for people that label you. Most of the time, “insensitive,” “self-centered,” “selfish,” “ignorant,” “depressed,” “crazy,” and other words said to you are words that describe the name-caller. They just cannot accept who they are.
4.) Accept their choice to not change. Too often, people inadvertently hold themselves hostage to their dysfunctional family in hopes that their family will wake up and change their behavior. While there are people who do change, the majority of people have no incentive to change when they have family members that continue to enable their behavior. People start to change when they realize the world does not revolve around them, and that there is no one that wants to be around them anymore.
5.) Seek healthy comfort. Did your beloved grandmother leave behind a token of her love for you? Did a quote you heard from a mentor strike a chord with you? Keep these tokens of love and appreciation handy. Whenever you find yourself going through a rough patch with difficult family, revisit this token often, especially if you associate it with happy, secure feelings.
8.) Allow time in the recovery period. It’s inevitable that you will have run-ins with family even if they have been removed from the family circle, whether it is seeing them at a reunion or hearing about them through the grapevine. You will undoubtedly have to face a lot of resurfacing hurt, anger, and a bundle of other emotions. Allow time to feel these emotions and to re-heal. If the removed family member wants to talk, and you agree, then arrange to talk with them. Let them know that you both will be allowed to say how you feel, but you will not tolerate name-calling, threats, or any other injurious talk to occur. If they disagree or no progress is being made, then walk away, and move on with your life. It might take someone other than you to reach this person.
7.) Do something nice for yourself. Caring people who feel drained after the holidays are often giving too much of their time, resources, gifts, talents, or all of the above! Yes, the season is about giving, but if it doesn’t come from your heart, it doesn’t count. The next time you are compelled to give or someone is demanding something from you, ask yourself if you really want to help them and how. Only help when you want to. It’s okay to help in ways other than the way in which we are being directly asked. Sometimes we cannot give Joey the $1,000 he desperately wants, but we can give him some great job resources so he can earn his own rewards in life.
Happy Holidays! Hang in there!