The following article was written by Palmeira Practice counsellor, Sally Evans.
In some shape or form, the festive period brings difficult family members for many of us.
Maybe it’s your sibling who triggers your competitive nature turning everything into a contest.
Maybe it involves a parent whose codependency issues leave you feeling like you should be doing more, giving more of your time, love, or even money.
Maybe it’s an extended family member who has to stir up drama where none exists, passing on gossip about the relationship issues your cousin is having that you'd rather not hear.
Alternatively, maybe it’s a combination of all of the above with others whose opinions are different from yours and who can't help but drag you into an argument.
Whether you're dealing with the kinds of standard annoyances that none of us can escape from or seriously toxic family members who derail your mental and emotional health, you can go into this season with a plan.
In the days leading up to the family time you would rather skip, repeat the following promises to yourself like mantras. Write them down; repeat them to yourself in the car or think them to yourself on your flight.
Visiting your family with these mantras in mind won't make your time together perfect but can help you make it through intact.
I will manage my expectations
Too often, we approach toxic family members with unrealistic expectations, whether consciously or unconsciously. We think to ourselves, "If I just _______________, then things will be different this time." Maybe you think there is some perfect argument you could make, or some perfect expression of your feelings that would help your family member(s) understand how much they need to change.
However, think about it: has anything that you've ever done in the past made your family member change? If so, fantastic! Maybe your family member is just irritating and not a toxic person, and is willing to work on self-improvement. However, if not, then there is no reason to believe that they'll start now.
Don't set yourself up for more hurt and disappointment; accept what you cannot change, recognising that it isn't your fault and that it is about them, not you.
I will master the art of staying quiet
When you are with your family, pretend that you're just there as an experimenter coming to observe them for the day. Let them talk amongst themselves, but try only to remain a passive part of the group. If you're not actively engaging, you're minimising the chances that someone will say something irritating, offensive, or hurtful to you. Of course, there may be times when someone says something that is massively offensive and hurtful, whether about you or someone else, and you feel a moral duty to respond.
These situations might come up, and you should follow your conscience if they do, but to whatever extent you can, remember that you do not have to engage with anyone you don't want to.
I will set whatever boundaries I need
This can take many different forms, depending on how serious your situation is. If you suffer ordinary annoyance with your family, you might set a boundary such as, "My partner and I will spend days with you while we are here, but nights we'd like to have to ourselves for dates." You don't have to justify it any more than that; you are an adult, and you get to decide how you spend your time.
If you have a more serious situation in your family, though, then set a more serious boundary. For instance, maybe you have a family member who's abusive to you in some way or has been in the past. If so, then you get to say, "I will not go to any gathering where he/she is going to be present."
If you're hosting, then you get to decide that someone will not be invited to your house if he or she makes you feel unsafe or unstable.
I will plan at least one person to vent with
It might be someone who is right there at home with you, like a sibling who's on your wavelength, or a cousin you are close to. It might be a friend you know you can call any time.
It's a good idea to approach someone you love and trust before the holidays and say, "Hey, I'll be spending much time with family soon, and that's hard for me; would you mind being on standby for calls if I need to vent?" When your family is driving you up the wall, just letting out your frustrations to a sympathetic listener will help immensely.
I will make an exit strategy
This would only be necessary for people whose families are at the worst end of the spectrum, but if you think your family is there, then have a Plan B in mind for just getting out. You might bookmark train schedules or last-minute flights you could hop on. Let a nearby friend or family member know you're coming to town and ask if you could crash on their couch for a night or two if things get tough.
Maybe you'll end up not needing your Plan B at all; maybe your family will surprise you, and you'll even enjoy yourself a little. It's possible! However, if you're walking into a stressful situation, it will give you extra peace of mind to know there's an option out there if you need it.
However, if your family makes you feel awful, then at the end of the day, you don't have to spend time with them. Don't let anyone convince you otherwise. If your family behaves themselves and can manage this period, then that is wonderful, an extra blessing at this stressful time of the year.
If you are dealing with family stress at this time of year, please do not hesitate to contact Sally Evans for further support.