In A Christmas Carol we learn that Ebenezer used to be a nice boy who became bitter through parental neglect and brittle through his emotional dependence on his sister. He was the product of a dysfunctional family.
If we’re honest we can acknowledge that the holiday season, while full of love and warmth for many of us, can also be a time when our family’s dysfunction rises up to bite us in the ass. No family is perfect, but some are downright toxic. For those whose homecoming means serious stress I hope these suggestions help:
1) Once you’re honest with yourself and can say, “Yes, as much as I love them, my family is screwed up,” you can begin to make plans to cope.
2) Give yourself permission to have an escape route. If having dinner with the family is imperative make plans to go somewhere you can breathe easier for dessert. Having a Plan B ‘just in case’ is not only a good idea, it’s smart.
3) Don’t rely on alcohol to ease the pain. You do not want to be dis-inhibited when there is even one person in the room who can hit all your buttons with one emotional taser blast.
4) See the humor wherever and whenever you can. It’s OK to roll your eyes as much as you want with your eyes closed. But avoid sarcasm. Sarcasm usually is not humor. It’s barely disguised anger.
5) Use the buddy system. Have a confidant close by or on speed dial; a friend, cousin, sister, anyone who ‘gets it’. She may need your help to get through the holiday as much as you need hers.
6) Resist the urge to confront those who hurt you in the past. Now is not the time. Trust me.
7) Having said that, if you are directly disrespected or abused in any way while the family is gathered, think ‘strategic retreat’. This is like a time-out for grown-ups. You could quietly say, “Please don’t speak to me that way,” excuse yourself and leave. Take the dog for a walk around the block, go to your favorite cafe for a decaf latte, listen to soothing music on your iPod, recite your affirmations, feed the ducks in the park and have a good cry. Give yourself 10-30 minutes to find your balance then rejoin the group. If the abuse persists give yourself permission to leave quietly but completely.
8) Breathe. When we are in pain we have a tendency to hold our breath. We aren’t even aware of it. Take a moment to breathe out, to signal relaxation to your body and mind. Then breathe in, filling your lungs to capacity (like a big yawn). This allows your frontal lobes to stay engaged and reasonable; much better than letting raging emotions tell you what to do.
9) Ask yourself what you really want. You may be surprised by the answer. You may even decide that what you want is to be with your family, warts and all. Once being with them is a choice instead of a gun-to-your-head obligation maybe you can relax in their presence.
If what you want, and need, is to preserve your self-esteem, and doing so requires separating from toxic family members, give yourself the gift of prioritizing your self-preservation. Leave. When guilt rears its ugly head, try to replace that corrosive emotion with compassion for yourself.
10) Take responsibility for your own happiness. This is what the three ghosts taught Scrooge. No one was going to save him, not Marley, not his sister or his sweet fiancee, not even Tiny Tim. He had to do it himself. And he did! You can too!
For more on this subject go to: Tips for Busting Holiday Depression.
I also recommend “Toxic Parents” by Susan Forward, PhD
How are you surviving the holidays? Please leave a comment.
photo courtesy jk5854