The holidays are upon us. These are times filled with scrumptious food, feel-good movie classics, festive decorations, and yes, crazy family drama. Believe it or not, this is the absolute busiest time of year for me as a therapist. Sometimes this is a result of throwing people who don’t spend much time together in a tight space and expecting them to work together toward a common outcome. Sometimes this is a result of the stress of all the planning and logistics that goes into the holidays bleeding out all over the people around us. Sometimes this is about clashing family expectations and personalities. Sometimes this is long-standing, unhealthy family dynamics. Whatever the case may be for you, here are some suggestions to set yourself up for success as you try to navigate family dynamics during the holidays.
1. Identify our buttons
Part of the reason things become problematic when around a family environment that is toxic is that we have trouble staying, what Hal Runkel, founder of ScreamFree calls, Calm AND Connected. It’s easier to stay calm when we disconnect or stay connected while flipping out. If we can stay calm and connected at the same time then there is hope for change in the family—or at least our ability to stay connected. The main thing that prevents us from achieving this is having our buttons pushed. Most likely the same scenarios and issues probably create drama every year. Yet, for some reason we are shocked and amazed every single time they occur. So, before entering this family dynamic, identify your buttons. Find out why these things affect you so greatly. Try to determine the reality of the actual threat opposed to simply getting your feathers ruffled. Then you can work toward creating boundaries against the real threats. However, if it’s just something that rubs you the wrong way or seems to be “unfair” or “rude” you may need to do like Elsa and “let it go.” These things that may just be the costs of you being part of the family. This will help you protect against real threat while helping you to find other ways to connect.
2. Ask yourself, “Why?”
This is a continuation of identifying your buttons. Once you’ve discovered what elements upset you or cause tension in your family environment, you need to really ask yourself why it bothers you. Sometimes it seems so obvious that you never really ask yourself why it bothers you personally. It’s a question you need to go deeper with than “because it’s rude.” Think about it, you endure a lot of rude things throughout your life and don’t become emotionally charged. What’s the difference between these things? Chances are there’s deeper meaning attached to these. If you hope to change dynamics you have to be able to calmly articulate your reasoning for going against these dynamics.
Often, we spend so many years just being angry or hurt we’ve never really thought why we’re upset or even what we would like to happen differently. When I ask this question in therapy I find that it’s often the desire for a family member to see them in a different way or show them love. These are things that will never be accomplished if they haven’t in the past unless some healing dialogue takes place. Expectations and demands never work.
When I’ve asked this question to others, the answer has been that family members have different moral compasses or different backgrounds. When you can see where the other family members are coming from it allows you to see them as people rather than threats. It doesn’t mean, however, that you agree with them or think the dynamic is any less toxic. However, it will help you stay calm while you engage that family member or toxic activity in order to work toward change.
3. Practice your “no’s”
Saying “no” is one of the main ways that we can set boundaries against things that are real threats or things we don’t agree with. Unfortunately, many family dynamics are set up so that “no” is an unacceptable answer. Therefore, in order to even be able to say no we have to get revved up becoming so emotionally charged it’s impossible to say it in a calm or polite manner. Sometimes without realizing it, our way of saying “no” actually sets off the argument and toxic dynamic. Of course, that’s perfectly understandable if there have been generations of programming that “no” is just not okay. Often, there can even be some skewed logic that would create reason that says, since saying “no” causes so much drama to surface, then I’ll go along with the unhealthy dynamic. That is, until we have our buttons pushed so much that we become emotionally charged anyway.
For you to change the dynamic and to be able to set a boundary around your “no,” you’ll have to practice saying it now so that you don’t become too emotionally charged in the moment. Talking through it aloud with a safe person or even a counselor can make a world of difference in allowing you to be calm in your “no” in the presence of family toxicity. As I mentioned earlier, often the thing that stops people from practicing is simply discomfort or pride. Don’t let these things set you up for failure.
4. Have an escape plan
Simply put, have a way to leave if the situation becomes too toxic. This isn’t about storming off. This is making sure you’re not stuck in a toxic environment. It was a crucial dynamic changer in my life one Christmas when my dad and I were trying to negotiate the transition from childhood to adult. Things got heated. Then, I realized I was 34, had a job, and could go to a hotel. I also had family in the area that I could stay with. I was NOT stuck. However, because I had always stayed with my dad, I felt that way. When we feel stuck we can feel threatened, and when we feel threatened we often step outside of our character. So, talk to family members in the area to see if there’s a possibility of staying with them. You don’t have to tell them why, simply that you’re checking on your options. Save up a contingency budget that will allow you to get a hotel if you need one. Both of these will give you an escape plan should things in the family become too toxic. This is a last resort, not a first strike. In the scenario with my dad, after realizing I was not stuck, I didn’t leave. It did, however help me stay calm and connected while I talked out my desire to be regarded as an adult. Enduring some discomfort while staying calm and connected can make all the difference in changing things for the future.