The simplest way to deal with toxic family during the holidays is to accept that you can’t change them, limit exposure, have contingency plans when they get toxic, and set firm boundaries for the time you spend together.
One of the most common questions I get is “How do I deal with toxic family, especially during the holidays?”. Toxic family can be difficult to deal with any time of year, but especially during the holidays when it seems like people’s toxicity comes out on overdrive. There’s nothing like asking your aunt Martha to pass the turkey and being hit by a deluge of how you’re not as successful as your older brother.
You don’t have to feel like this type of treatment is inevitable.
With a few key tools, you’ll be able to deal with your kookie family much more easily.
In this article, we'll take a look at:
How To Deal With Toxic Family During The Holidays
- Ask For What You Need
- Prepare Yourself
- Go In With A Plan
- Have A Distraction Prepared
- Drop The Chip On Your Shoulder
- Don’t Try To Be Right
- Acceptance Isn’t Approval
- Drop Your Expectations
- You Need To Grieve
- Drop The Suffering
- Let Go Of Trying To Make Them Happy
- Do Things On Your Terms
- Limit Exposure
- Get Your Team Ready
- Be Your Greatest Ally
What Is A Toxic Family?
Most people have at least one toxic family member.
A toxic family is someone that makes you feel like it’s not okay to be yourself. Someone who doesn’t respect your boundaries. Someone that makes you feel guilty for having feelings and expressing yourself. Toxic family members can make you doubt yourself, feel guilt and shame, feel like it’s your responsibility to make them happy, and want to avoid being around them altogether.
Toxicity doesn’t have to mean physical abuse or something horrible happening. It can be as simple as emotional invalidation. Emotional invalidation is when you’re told that your emotions are wrong and you can’t trust yourself or your inner world. This might look like being told to stop crying when you hurt yourself, to stop being so dramatic when you’re sad, or to be quiet when you talk excitedly about your day.
Toxic Family Can Look Like:
- Rejection or lack of acceptance
- Emotional invalidation
- Passive aggressiveness
- Substance abuse
- Mental health issues
- Perfectionism or obsession with appearances
- Emotional, psychological, or physical abuse
What Happens When You Have A Toxic Family
When you come from a toxic family, you might question your reality. You may have been brought up with a feeling that you were the one with the problem, not the other person. This may have caused a whole host of possible things to happen inside of you.
- Lack of self-trust
- Ignoring feelings
- Difficulty trusting others
- Fear of abandonment
- Difficulty getting close to others
- Discomfort being yourself
- Fear of success
- Feeling afraid of failure
- Being on guard
- Fear that you’ve done something wrong all the time
- Bracing for something bad to happen
- Fear of setting boundaries
- Not expressing yourself
- Ignoring your needs
How To Deal With Toxic Family During The Holidays
Although the following list is specific to dealing with toxic family during the holidays, these tips can be used year-round.
Ask For What You Need
In order to deal with toxic family during the holidays, you need to be able to ask for what you need. Most people who come from toxic families feel like it’s not safe to ask for their needs to be met. They fear that if they ask for what they need they’ll be yelled at, ignored, told their needs are unreasonable, or made fun of (this can be a type of gaslighting).
When you have reasonable needs and they’re met with a toxic response you may end up doubting yourself. If this happens over and over when you’re a child you end up pushing down your needs and refusing to express them.
This is one of the reasons that people who come from toxic backgrounds don’t set boundaries. They fear setting limits with other people and asking for their needs to be met. However, when you have this pattern with your family you end up playing it out again and again for the rest of your life.
I see this especially with entrepreneurs who don’t know how to ask for help. They learned that it wasn’t safe to ask, so they stopped asking.
One of the ways to begin to overcome this is to make sure to start asking for whatever you need to feel safe during the holidays. This might mean having a shorter stay of only a few days or staying in a hotel. It could mean having certain dietary restrictions respected. Don’t be afraid to ask for your needs to be met.
Even though it can be difficult, you can never have your needs met if you refuse to ask. This is one of the keys to effective communication. You must do one of two things. Ask for your needs to be met, or decide that your needs are not important. Many people expect others to read their minds and automatically meet their needs. However, you can’t expect your needs to be met without asking for them to be met first.
There are many things that make stressful situations worse. One helpful acronym is HALTS.
When you feel hungry, angry, lonely, tired, or sick you end up more emotionally vulnerable. This. can cause you to fly off the handle much more quickly. You have a short fuse so it doesn’t take much for someone to get under your skin or to make you feel bad.
One of the most important things you can do to have a successful holiday with toxic family members is to prepare yourself ahead of time. This means learning things which will help you feel less reactive before you get into a stressful situation. This might mean learning meditation practices, learning how to manage strong emotions, learning to manage your stress, getting more sleep, and taking good care of yourself.
It’s not a good idea to go into a situation with a toxic family with any of these emotional vulnerabilities without feeling prepared.
- Have granola bars stashed away in your bags so your blood sugar doesn’t dip
- Take a few moments to escape the family activities to take a few breaths by yourself to calm down.
Go into the situation prepared with a plan for how you’ll deal with these emotional vulnerabilities.
Go In With A Plan
In order to deal with a toxic family during the holidays, you must go into the holiday event with a plan. Many people just figure if shit hits the fan that they’ll deal with it then. But this can be a recipe for disaster. Without a plan, you’re going into the situation without a sense of security and safety that will help you feel more comfortable and at ease in the situation.
A plan can be simple and be something like “if mom ends up getting really angry, we’re going to leave”. Or “if my brother gets disrespectful I’m going to stand up and go to the other room”.
A plan doesn’t have to be something extravagant. It can just be enough of a framework to help you know what to do if you feel like your family is starting to show that assholish behavior you’re afraid of happening. Once you have a plan you won’t have to fear it quite as much.
Have A Distraction Prepared
One of my favorite tips to deal with a toxic family is to have a distraction prepared.
I remember a client I worked with years ago would often get into really intense conversations with her father about politics. She knew she couldn’t win whenever these conversations began. They’d often spin out of control ending up in a huge shouting match. Through working together we discovered that her father’s favorite pastime was baseball. So whenever her father began to talk about politics she changed the subject to baseball instead. She reported that she was able to have a happy holiday with her father using this technique because she refused to buy in when her dad was looking for a fight.
The key to this technique is to pay attention to that irresistible topic for the toxic person. Perhaps it’s their work or the last great meal they had. Have that topic ready before you arrive so that you’re prepared if they get toxic.
Drop The Chip On Your Shoulder
One of the ways that people screw themselves when they go into these situations is they go in with a chip on their shoulder.
Perhaps you’ve experienced this. You go to the Christmas party feeling weighed down by all of the past resentments, hurts, and slights from the past. You prep yourself for a fight with your status-obsessed sister-in-law. You’re still upset that your aunt didn’t come to your wedding. You end up feeling angry and irritable from the get-go.
Forgiveness Doesn’t Mean Acceptance
If this has been you in the past then the time is ripe for you to deal with that baggage now. Talk to a therapist, a coach, or an objective friend. You’ve got to learn how to let go of your anger and forgive so that you can move on.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean that you approve of their behavior. It doesn’t mean you let them off the hook. Ultimately, forgiveness isn’t even about the other person, it’s about you. It’s about letting go of the burden you’ve been carrying around your whole life.
Many people don’t want to let go of the hurt and resentment because they feel that this validates what they experienced when they were young. This is especially the case if they’ve felt like their emotion have been invalidated growing up. The anger becomes a sort of proof that you’re entitled to your feelings. The truth is, you’re only hurting yourself and keeping yourself stuck in the past. Forgiveness isn’t saying what they did was okay. It’s just letting go of the horrible burden you’ve of the anger and resentment that you’ve been carrying around.
It’s like the saying “anger is like acid, it burns the container it’s held in more than what it’s poured on”. Do yourself a favor and let it go.
Don’t Try To Be Right
One of the best ways to learn how to deal with your toxic family during the holidays is to stop trying to prove you’re right.
When you’ve been emotionally invalidated by your family you feel a need to prove that you’re right. Whether it’s trying to prove to your family member how they hurt you, prove that your opinions are the right ones, or trying to win arguments. This need to prove that you’re right goes back to a fundamental feeling that you’re not being heard or seen.
When you feel like you’re not being heard or seen you may feel the need to fight desperately for your right to exist. You feel like you have to prove yourself, your feelings, and your opinions as true. This can look like trying to prove your worth, trying to impress others, but it often shows up simply as the need to be right.
Is Peace More Important Than Being Right?
Instead, ask yourself “do I want to be right, or do I want to be happy?”
When you try to be right during situations like these you’re often sacrificing your own happiness.
Your worth is not connected to whether your family members see you accurately. It’s not connected to their response to you. Or to whether or not they can see your point of view. In fact, it’s not connected to their opinions what so ever.
When you try to be right you’re essentially giving your worth to others and saying “only if I can prove that I’m right am I worthy”.
Give up the fight. And realize that it’s just not worth the battle. Someone else thinking that they’re right doesn’t mean they are. It just means you’ve avoided a fight that you’re probably not going to win anyway.
Never argue with an idiot. They will drag you down to their level and beat you with experience.Mark Twain
Acceptance Isn’t Approval
One way to deal with your toxic family during the holidays is to accept your family for who they are.
Accepting what is is not the same as approving of it.
No one likes to be judged.
How has it felt when your family members haven’t accepted you? Probably pretty horrible.
Instead of pushing to change them and make them into something else, you merely accept who they are as they are now.
One of the most powerful things in life is to no longer be in denial.
Denial is a self-protective mechanism. You learned to use it in the past so that you could cope. When you were a child you had to hold onto the hope that your family could be different so that you didn’t lose hope. You coped as well as you could with the tools that you had.
As an adult you have the option to keep using those old coping mechanism that no longer work or to try something new. Seeing your family as they are and accepting that this is their choice to be this way is part of this process.
When you can accept that other people are who they are and it’s not your job to change them you free up a lot of energy. You stop feeling like it’s your job to make other people happy. Your emotional energy if freed up from wishing they’d be different. Instead, you come to realize that the only thing you can ever control is yourself.
Accepting that people and situations are as they are doesn’t mean that you approve of other people’s behavior. It simply means you’re freeing yourself from the codependent process of focusing your energy on other people instead of on yourself and your own happiness.
Drop Your Expectations
Here’s the thing, you know this is who your family is. You’ve known that they’re argumentative, dismissive, or bullying. However, you have expectations that they respond differently to you. And THIS is what’s leaving you hurt. Not their actual behavior.
Expectations are a way that we end up punishing ourselves with disappointment and sadness when others don’t act as we want to. This is part of the codependent process where you expect other people to act in certain ways in order to show their love of you. So if someone fails to act up to your expectations you feel abandoned, rejected, and unloved.
Here’s an example: When I was young I would get super upset every time I’d go out to lunch with my dad and he’d want to have a drink (My dad is an alcoholic). Every time I’d feel “can’t he just not drink for a freaking lunch to respect our time together!” and get butthurt about it. It made every single visit upsetting and sad. I’d often leave and cry. When I accepted who he is and dropped the expectation of him being different I could say “well that’s Dad and he’s going to do what he wants to do”.
I’ve dropped my expectations of him being different. Instead, accepting him just how he is.
This acceptance is not approval of his choices. It’s just the choice that I’m not going to suffer because he is choosing things I’d rather he not do. Or choosing things that disappoint me.
By having expectations that he would be someone else I was acting co-dependently and hoping that he would become someone else to show me that he loves me. Now I accept him, and what he can give, and how he can give it.
Ultimately I’m rising above the expectations by giving my father the unconditional love that is so often missing in our world.
Expectations Vs. Boundaries
Expectations are different than boundaries. Expectations are part of the toxic cycle where you feel that “if only they were different, they’d finally show you that loved you”.
Unconditional love is not an unconditional acceptance of his behavior. I choose not to be around him if he’s had too much to drink. That’s a boundary. However, trying to control his behavior with expectations and then suffering when he didn’t live up to them only hurt me.
The same holds true for you.
For more information on this make sure to download my free ebook The No Bullsh!t Guide to Life. In it, I give you exclusive access to a free 1-hour training on boundaries and how they’re different from expectations.
You Need To Grieve
When you finally come to the point where you’ve accepted your toxic family for you who they are and have dropped expectations you end up needing to grieve the loss of the person you wish you had in your life. To grieve the loss of the idealized father (or brother, mother, or friend) that you had built up in your head.
It can be incredibly difficult and confronting to realize that they’ll never be who and what you want them to be.
The kindest most compassionate thing you can do is learn to love and accept others for who they are. To not place those expectations on them to be different in order to earn your love.
Once you accept that you’re never going to get the other person to do what you want them to do, to feel like you’ll never have them at your back cheering you on, then you’re free to drop the suffering.
“The kindest most compassionate thing you can do is learn to love and accept others for who they are. To not place those expectations on them to be different in order to earn your love.” – Click to Tweet
Drop The Suffering
Think about it, when you know your coworker is a jerk you don’t get upset every time he acts assy. You let it flow through you and you just roll your eyes like “oh that’s Bert. That’s what Bert does” and it doesn’t even affect you…
You don’t suffer over it because you don’t fear that you’re unlovable due to their poor behavior.
When you grieve who you wish your family members would be, you finally free yourself from a whole list of things.
Needing to be who they want you to be.
Hoping that they’ll be different.
Needing to keep them happy.
Feeling unloveable when they let you down
Part of you may always wants them to be different. To act differently. To be the caring, supporting, nurturing parents and siblings and uncles and kids we’ve always wanted. However, as long as you hold onto that expectation you’ll keep suffering.
The only solution is radical acceptance. Radical acceptance of exactly who and what they are and exactly what they’re going to do.
Let Go Of Trying To Make Them Happy
Feeling the need to make other people happy is another aspect of that codependent process we talked about in the last point.
When you feel like it’s your job to make other people happy you end up bending and contorting yourself in all kinds of ways to try to manage other people’s moods.
This is understandable when you come from a toxic background. In fact, when you were growing up this was an adaptive coping mechanism. When you were a kid you didn’t have the freedom to set boundaries like leaving or cutting off contact with toxic people if they violated your boundaries. So you had to do whatever you could to keep yourself safe. This might have meant tip-toeing around other people’s moods so that you didn’t get your mom’s rage or taking the brunt of your brother’s anger.
As an adult, this is no longer the case. You can set boundaries that have consequences.
It’s not your job to make other people happy. As long as you feel like it’s your job to make other people happy, you’ll end up feeling like your self-worth is tied to the moods of other people. As you know, those other people can’t be predicted which means your self-worth is always at the end of a yo-yo going up and down depending on how other people feel.
Do Things On Your Terms
When you’re asking how to deal with a toxic family during the holidays, the most important answer is always “boundaries”.
Boundaries are an explicit line in the sand that lets other people know what you’re willing to put up with. If your father ends up drinking too much, make it clear that you will be leaving the house after his 3rd beer.
The key to setting boundaries is to know what you need, set a specific standard, and have a specific consequence for this.
The difference between being controlling and setting boundaries is that boundaries are about you and what you will deal with. Control is about an expectation of another person’s behavior.
For example, your dad can drink 15 beers if that’s what he wants to do. But you refuse to be there after 3 because that’s your boundary. If he wants you to stick around, he’ll stop at 3. If that’s not important to him, you’ll leave. Simple as that.
One of the easiest ways to deal with toxic family during the holidays is to limit your exposure.
Chances are you know approximately how long it takes before your family turns shitty.
- Mom gets crabby after the Thanksgiving meal is done and cleaned up.
- Uncle Charlie gets dismissive when you get into deep conversation with him.
- Your sister gets uptight after you stay at her house longer than one night.
Listen to your instincts here and plan to limit exposure depending on the pattern of when your family members turn toxic. It’s simple and will save you a huge headache rather than dealing with the toxicity when it starts to come out.
Get Your Team Ready
Make sure you have a great team of people to rely on and talk to about your family. Whether this is a therapist, a coach, or a friend who understands what it’s like to have a toxic family it’s important to have people you can process with or text if and when you’re having a hard time.
When you don’t take the time to get your team ready before the holidays you can end up feeling really isolated and alone when the toxicity comes to a head. A toxic family and emotional invalidation can be crazy-making and make you question your reality. When you have a team that has your back you aren’t as susceptible to questioning your reality and sacrificing your happiness.
Be Your Greatest Ally
At the end of the day, you are your greatest ally. The one who you can fall back on and trust. You can deal with anything that comes your way. You are stronger than you think and braver than you know.
Work on strengthening yourself so that you remember who you really are. Learn emotional coping skills so that you’re not overwhelmed when you’re experiencing strong emotions during the holidays. Start doing some stress management before the holidays and get into the practice of doing good self-care.
Make sure you give yourself the acknowledgment, acceptance, and approval you crave. That way you won’t feel let down or disappointed when you don’t receive it from your family.
Above all, evict that nasty asshole inside your head that tells you you’re not enough, that you’re not worthy, or that you might as well give up. Stop suffering from self-critical and self-sabotaging thoughts. You’ll be shocked at how much stronger you feel.
Other Options Always Exist
There are always other options that you can use to deal with toxic family including cutting ties. Here’s a podcast interview I did about cutting ties with Toxic people if you find yourself at that point.
For more information on how to overcome toxicity and trauma download my free ebook The No Bullsh!t Guide to Life. Get tips to stop self-sabotage, overcome the patterns that are keeping you stuck, and live your best life.