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Four Ways To Survive Toxic Family Members During The Holidays

How to set strong boundaries and strategize a game plan.  

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Tara Jacoby
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The holiday season is a wonderful time to spend with family while eating delicious home-cooked food and enjoying many time-honored traditions. It’s exciting to connect with loved ones you don’t get the chance to see often, but you also might be in the company of certain family members you’d rather not see at all. 

Most families have a variety of dysfunctional dynamics with sordid histories and strained relationships that carry unresolved conflicts and underlying issues that never fully healed. I have some of those dynamics in my own family, too. I often dread attending some family gatherings that can be an emotionally depleting experience, often triggering anxiety, anger and heartache — none of which I want to face, especially during the holidays. 

Through the years, I’ve developed some strategies to help me prepare for these family festivities filled with some problematic people I’ll have to be around. I’ve learned I need to equip myself with both the emotional stability and physical strength to manage the tension and trauma that can easily occur. Doing these four things helps me feel prepared with a plan to not only deal with the difficult people, but also hopefully hold on to the positive parts of these family celebrations, too.  

Make your mental and physical health a priority   

It’s critical for me not to go to these family events exhausted and stressed out already. Through the weeks leading up to the visit, I have to make my mental and physical health a priority because I know they will both take a huge hit in one way or another. I will be more resolved and resilient if I’m feeling physically strong and emotionally secure.   

I make sure to get as much sleep as possible, eat well and exercise, so I can be healthy and physically at my best. I also need to fortify my emotional well-being so I feel at peace as much as I possibly can before these uncomfortable situations take place. I’ll often talk to trusted friends who know my family history, which helps me process through all my feelings and identify ways I can feel less vulnerable when I’m around them. As I anticipate the stress of the upcoming tense circumstances that will unfold, I become much more intentional about making time for quiet meditation and prayer. This always calms my nerves and gives me the mental and emotional sustenance I need to manage the encounters with those family members I struggle with the most.    

Set strong boundaries and strategize a game plan   

I always try to set a specific time frame for the visit, whether it’s how long I stay at a family member’s house or how long I open my home to host. Having control of the scheduled visit helps with my anxiety, knowing I’ve put some boundaries in place. I also think through possible problems that might occur when a conversation starts to get uncomfortable, and I consider various statements I can say and actions I can take to dissipate the situation or step away from a tense interaction. I strategize how to interact in a positive and diplomatic manner, and proactively plan how I will handle any provoking/insulting/offensive/hurtful comments directed toward me.   

When I anticipate different difficult scenarios that might play out, I won’t be as rattled or caught off guard. I feel much more prepared, having carefully thought through how I will behave and respond to the people who are tough to take. Granted, sometimes it’s the unpredictable moments you never see coming that can really be upsetting, which leads me to my next strategic plan.  

Stay close to healthy family members

I have my safe family members whom I feel completely comfortable with, and they understand the difficult dynamics within our family. I talk to them beforehand, and we make a game plan on how we can help one another during the visit. We’ll often sit next to each other at the meal or escape outside for a secret meeting to regroup and process whatever is going on that might be stressful. It helps to know my trusted family members will be there for me if something awful goes down. I try to stay as close to them as possible for security and stability, and focus on spending time with them instead of exposing myself to others I’d rather not be around.   

Keep a trusted friend on call for support and encouragement  

Through the years, I’ve always had close friends who understand everything about my family, and they are always on standby in case things should fall apart. I’ll often text them updates, and they offer me guidance and encouragement when I need it most. Their support always helps me feel validated and anchored when I’m in the throes of any conflict or I’m losing my confidence or courage. And if necessary, I can sneak away to call them for a quick pep talk when things get really bad. Their compassion and concern give me the strength I need to survive when I’m in the thick of my family’s mess.  

There’s no perfect family — and there certainly are no perfect people — so I do my best to embrace mine, despite the strained relationships that cause me so much stress. For some, the cost is too great to be around toxic family members, and keeping distant and safe from harm is necessary. But for those who choose to withstand the challenge of dealing with your own difficult people, it’s probably because the benefits far outweigh the negativity you’ll endure. Just make sure to take good care of yourself and find the support you need. Focus on those loved ones you’re excited to see.