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How to deal with toxic family members during the Holidays

For some of us, this holiday season is the saddest and most difficult one yet because of who and what it reminds us of. The people we loved and lost to death, separation, or divorce. The people we would like to spend time with but have chosen not to be around us. The people we dread to see and interact with because they’re toxic. The uncomfortable conversations. The passive-aggressive comments about your choices, job, spouse, sexuality, race, gender, religion, etc. Unmet and unrealistic expectations. The dysfunction. The re-lived trauma. The pain and loneliness reside in a place that should feel like home. The longing for love and belonging is very evidently absent.

These are the different realities that exist during the proclaimed “happiest time of the year.”

It goes without saying that taking care of your mental health during this period is paramount to your peace of mind. You can be so easily triggered by a comment or action from a toxic family member that can undo all the healing work you’ve been doing. Dealing with the situation is not as easy as cutting your family off so what can you do to protect yourself?

Before we dive deep, take note of the following characters who may be draining you during the reunion;

  1. The easily angered and irritable one who’s waiting for the smallest mistake so that they can start yelling.

  2. The pessimist says the most negative things about others, and situations, and has no hope for the future.

  3. The narcissist wants to be at the center of attention and brags about everything they have achieved.

  4. The disrespectful one who makes the strangest and most inappropriate comments often starts trouble.

  5. The one who is quick to judge and shame you. They make you feel anxious, depressed, unworthy, undeserving, and out of place.

  6. The one who plays the victim. They expect everyone to pity and console them. They also twist stories and make others look like villains.

  7. The overly-concerned one (yes, this is a thing) who asks endless questions about the business that doesn’t concern them so that they can start gossip.

  8. The one who brings up your shortcomings, trauma, past hurt, injustices, etc. They keep reminding you of everything that should already be forgotten.

  9. The one who pretends to be clueless about sensitive topical issues like race, sexuality, politics, religion, etc. They want you to educate them.

  10. The one with strong opinions that are rigid and hurtful. They don’t care if what they say hurts others or starts a conflict.

Labeling people’s behavior is important so that you can be aware of what emotions they trigger in you. Now that you know which people to look out for, let’s discuss how you can protect your energy and mental health in the presence of toxic family members.

  1. Go in there with an open mind and awareness. Everyone has brought their experiences, disappointments, hopes, grudges, and whatever else they’re carrying in their hearts and so have you. With this knowledge, you prepare yourself for what is to come.

  2. Don’t carry a defensive attitude. You are already aware that certain things may happen and you may be triggered into unhealthy reactions but you can choose not to engage with the negativity. If you see a fight/disagreement coming, excuse yourself from the situation.

  3. Set boundaries. Communicate what you won’t tolerate and if that’s hard to do, let your actions speak for you. “No” is a complete sentence – use it as much as you want. Also give ultimatums like, “If you continue saying X, I will not do Z.”

  4. Call abuse out when you see it. Hold people accountable for their behavior and don’t sugarcoat it. Let them know how what they say or do affects you or others like, “The way you speak about me as your child with disregard and unappreciation makes me feel unloved and unwanted.”

  5. Don’t stay too long if you don’t have to. The holidays are long but that doesn’t mean you need to spend every day with toxic family members. Plan to stay for the important days then schedule other things that you love on the remaining days. Have an exit strategy if things get too heated.

  6. Go slow on the drinking. Too much alcohol can aggravate an already bad situation and make you reactive and more vulnerable. Keep it at a minimum, at least until you’re no longer around toxic family members.

  7. Channel your emotions positively. Let out how you feel through healthy channels like journaling, meditating, taking a walk, deep breathing, swimming, and exercising. Don’t let your emotions bottle up when you have easy ways to deal with them at the moment.

  8. Surround yourself with more positive family members. Not everyone in your family is toxic and those are the people you should hold on to. Spark conversations with them or suggest activities you can do together.

  9. Remain true to yourself. Don’t overcompensate for anything by just being yourself. Let them see you living in your element instead of the unrealistic expectations they have for you, what they label you, and the boxes they’ve put you in. Say what you mean and mean what you say.

  10. Keep yourself busy with other things. There’s always something to do around the house to avoid toxic people. Help a cousin with her babies, clean, cook, take the dog for a walk, etc. If the toxic people are also doing these things, go do your own stuff like watch a movie or read a book.

Remember this; You don’t deserve to be uncomfortable or feel like you have to walk on eggshells around your family. Your relation to them does not make their toxicity right or acceptable. The thing with family is that they may disregard boundaries completely. They might never apologize for wronging you because they may feel like they have every right to treat you badly and, in some cases, they feel like the younger people should be able to take all the disrespect from the older ones. If it’s all too unbearable for you, you don’t have to get together with them. You can love people from a distance, you don’t have to be with them physically. If you have the opportunity, please raise these issues. Stand up for yourself. If you survive this year’s holidays with toxic family members, make sure you go buy yourself something nice because you did it!


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