Dealing With Toxic Relationships During the Holidays
December 6, 2019
It’s that time of year again. The time of year when it becomes impossible to deny that the holidays are approaching. Streetlights and storefronts twinkle with lights and other festive regalia. Social media feeds are clogged with holiday-themed memes and end-of-year challenges. If there are children in your life, they’re probably chattering non-stop about upcoming holiday parties and gifts they hope to receive. But holidays aren’t all goodwill and cheer—for those dealing with difficult family members, holidays can cross from stressful to downright triggering.
Family bonds are strong; especially when it comes to parents and siblings, it can be hard not to let their comments get under your skin. That difficulty is compounded by well-meaning friends suggesting you let go of past drama and embrace your family during the holidays. But for some, that past family drama is outright trauma—and sometimes, cutting ties with family members is the healthiest step you can take for your recovery and mental wellbeing. People who have never experienced genuine family trauma might have a hard time understanding how you can walk away from the woman who gave you life, or cut contact with the brother you grew up with. That’s okay. It’s important to remember that those people did not live your life, and have no say in how you choose to navigate painful family relationships. If temporarily or permanently cutting contact with a family member is necessary for your healing, that is okay.
Abuse isn’t always obvious. Sometimes it comes in the forms of insults and physical altercations—but there is also such a thing as “toxic positivity.” Toxic positivity can be especially difficult to combat during holidays, when there is a general expectation of cheer. It looks like people who demand that they be around “good vibes only,” who refuse to ever give space to your less-than-happy emotions, and who tell you that depression/trauma/addiction and so on can be cured by positive thinking. There’s nothing wrong with expressing gratitude or trying to focus on positive events in your life, but sadness, anger and other “negative” emotions are normal, healthy parts of human existence. If you have experienced trauma or are dealing with a behavioral health disorder, demanding that you act positive or leave is outright gaslighting. Gaslighting is an abuse tactic that involves making someone feel like their feelings and perceptions are wrong. It can be just as harmful as more obvious forms of abuse. If you have a family member who always tells you that a traumatic event didn’t happen, claims you are overreacting, or will only allow you to participate in family events if you are cheerful, that is toxic positivity—and also a valid reason to cut down or cut off communication.
Sometimes—especially around the holidays—it can be impossible to cut contact with certain family members. If your family traditionally gets together to celebrate the holidays, you might very well find yourself faced with the choice between facing that harmful individual, or missing out on the entire celebration just to avoid them. Ultimately, that choice is yours. If you think being in the same room with this person will be too triggering, even surrounded by people you love, then you absolutely have the right to decline this year’s invite to family dinner. But if you want to see all the other people who will be there, it is possible to navigate holiday interactions with negative family members.
If possible, have a trusted support person with you. You can invite a friend or significant other to join you. Or, if you know someone you trust will be attending, reach out ahead of time and let them know what’s up. Ask your support person to look out for signs that you’re getting triggered, and take you aside to help you calm down. See if they can help deflect difficult conversations; if the abusive family member tries to reel you into a fight, ask your support person to help re-direct to a safer topic. If you’re in addiction recovery and you’re worried the stress might lead to a slip, tell this person how you would like them to handle that scenario. Whether that means helping you regulate your drinking, or keeping you away from substances altogether is up to you.
You can also create your own plan ahead of time. If Aunt Cathy starts nitpicking your weight—step aside to do a quick meditation. Text a friend or sponsor if you find yourself wanting to use. Keep as many people as possible between you and your abusive cousin. Allow yourself to leave early without guilt if you need to. For people with traumatic family histories, holidays can be difficult—but you can get through them.
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