How to Survive Your Toxic Family Over the Holidays

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Family is complicated—a fact that is never more apparent than this time of year, a time of obligatory family gatherings and forced dinner conversation. If the thought of dealing with an overly nosy aunt or rude cousin makes you want to avoid family gatherings altogether, there are ways of salvaging the holidays that won’t cause you to skip out on seeing your loved ones altogether.

How to set (and maintain) healthy boundaries 

It’s crucial to take some time, before you visit your family, to identify what is and is not acceptable to you. “What are you willing to accept, and what are you not willing to take?” said Scott Lyons, a clinical psychologist and author of the book Addicted to Drama. Given how chaotic family visits can be, it can help to think this through ahead of time, and to communicate it to family members.

Lyons also recommends pacing yourself, which includes taking regular breaks, and making sure to get enough sleep. “It takes some time to acclimate to your family’s rhythm and pacing,” Lyons said. “We are typically more sensitive until we’ve found our rhythm in relation to theirs.” If a family member does violate a boundary, it’s even more important to take some time for yourself so you can regroup before engaging with them again.

If your family is especially exhausting, it can also help to think about what your tolerance level is with regards to how much time you can spend with them, and plan your visit accordingly by leaving early or spending the night at a hotel or friend’s house.

How to avoid reverting back to childhood behaviors 

If a visit home leaves you feeling (and acting) like your third-grade self again, you are not alone. This is called reenactments, Lyons said, and it’s a common way to react to being home again. Basically, we are so used to thinking and acting a certain way around family that being in proximity to them causes us to revert to our old habits and behaviors.

“Unless we have done diligent work to break the cycles of our behavioral patterns with our family, it’s as though we are stuck in a time capsule,” Lyons said. “That time capsule gets activated the moment we return to a familiar environment or relationship; the sound of our family member’s voice, certain behaviors, or smells will pull us back into similar memories.” When it comes to falling back into these old patterns of behavior, it helps to be mindful of them.

How to deal with negative comments from family members 

If a family member is being particularly negative, Lyons advises recognizing that often, this is not about you, but is rather a reflection of their own fears and insecurities.

If you do find yourself in this situation, he recommends prioritizing your own well-being, and to take care of yourself, just as you would with a physical injury. “It’s OK to say, ‘I don’t like that,’ or ‘Perhaps your intention is good, but the way that’s said doesn’t feel good,’” Lyons said.

How to recover from a difficult family visit

If you’ve just returned from a difficult family visit, Lyons recommends taking a little time to decompress: Get in a workout, schedule a phone call with a friend or therapist, take the time to list out what was good about the family visit, or spend some time with your chosen family. As Lyons points out, it’s important to acknowledge and normalize the fact that family visits can be challenging, and that you are doing the best that you can to navigate a difficult situation.

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