Christmas can be a really exciting time of the year for some. If you have a toxic family full of tension and conflict, the idea of everybody coming together, to sit around and be in close company for the whole day can be enough to make you break into a cold sweat.
Christmas with the family can feel quite contained and the environment is quite isolating, even when the family dynamics are not particularly toxic.
The streets become eerily quiet and with everything on hiatus it can feel like a sense of being trapped, so it’s important to know what you can do and how you can survive a toxic family Christmas without completely losing your sanity.
With the Christmas festivities there is more than often a lot of alcohol at the ready. Consuming alcohol combined with being in the confines of the family home, can lead to inhibitions being lowered.
Any underlying issues that have been bubbling under the surface can rear its ugly head.
Previous experiences of heated exchanges, snide comments or even physical altercations all seem to want to be talked about, discussed or challenged at Christmas, and often this is not addressed in a constructive or healthy way.
There are toxic people everywhere and unfortunately, this doesn’t exclude members of your own family.
As the old saying goes, you can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family.
Whether you celebrate Christmas in the traditional sense or not, you still have the right to feel emotionally and physically safe.
So what can you do if spending time with your family at Christmas fills you with anxiety and dread?
If there are instances of dysfunctional behaviours within the family, some of the following ideas can help you to manage the festive time stress.
It’s a wise choice and a healthy act of self care to emotionally protect yourself
and to remove or distance yourself when you can from a toxic environment,
even when this dynamic involves family.
Accept Responsibility, Be Accountable
Toxic people or toxic behaviours are everywhere – this doesn’t discount you.
It might be a challenging idea to consider, but it’s worth taking a look at yourself and identifying if you are somebody who brings or fuels toxic behaviours within the family.
Paying attention to your own behaviours and being accountable isn’t about making harsh judgements to make you feel guilt or shame, but it allows you to have an awareness that during conflict, we all have a part to play.
Reflect on how you are coping or dealing with your own behaviour and how this could potentially influence the people around you to facilitate self awareness. You can then begin to think about any necessary changes that you would like to make, after all, change starts with you.
Being around family has the potential to turn your behaviours into negative patterns of the past that may have been helpful previously as a coping mechanism, but is not a healthy way to resolve differences in the long term. For instance, being back home in the family unit can trigger you into a certain role, which might not reflect your thoughts or behaviours in other situations, like becoming aggressive, childish or defensive due to a hypervigilance of feeling criticised or attacked by members of the family.
Over time we can become ritualistic about Christmas and other celebratory events. As a family you might have formed a habit or tradition where things are always done in the same way, without there being much cause or reason to ask why.
The day follows the same routine, you see the same family members, you go to the same designated family members home for your Christmas meal. In honour of sameness there can be a sense of obligation to take part in the celebrations in a way that no longer feels right for you.
If things are not working for you as they are, it’ s okay to shake things up a bit and do things differently.
You can embrace change and let Christmas evolve into an experience that isn’t harmful to you and your mental health. There are no rules that say that you have to stick to the same patterns and routine, especially when you find that this can be the catalyst for harmful behaviours in a toxic family.
You do not have to accept being treated poorly or made to feel as
though your feelings do not matter, or your feelings are to be minimised
as you are “too sensitive”. Regardless of the intent of the other person,
you are entitled to feel the way that you do.
Avoiding certain members of the family might feel counterintuitive as it might feel as though you are running away, but this can all depend on your perspective.
If you have a conscious awareness that being around a certain person makes you feel small, unheard, or insignificant, then it is detrimental to your mental health and wellbeing.
Being overly criticised about every little thing that you do damages your self worth and self esteem, particularly when it comes from a family member.
When we think of family it should be a place of acceptance, love and nurturing. Unfortunately, even though this is what is needed within the family dynamic, this isn’t always the case.
It can be an extremely challenging and a sad experience when you recognise that some of the basic forms of kindness is missing within the family unit.
However, having an awareness that somebody is toxic and draining on your energy and is therefore worth avoiding is actually self-preservation and taking care of your mental health.
It’s a wise choice and a healthy act of self care to emotionally protect yourself and to remove or distance yourself when you can from a toxic environment, even when this dynamic involves family.
If you are part of a family system where some of these
dysfunctional traits go unrecognised, devalued or dismissed,
then it is very possible that things are unlikely to change.
Boundaries & Back Up Plan
When family say things or behave in a way that makes us feel uncomfortable, it may be time to establish some healthy boundaries.
Healthy boundaries set the perimeters of what you will and won’t accept.
There may be the family member who uses humour as a way to be criticising or insulting, but actually what they are saying or doing is hurtful or harmful to you, this behaviour should absolutely be challenged.
You do not have to accept being treated poorly or made to feel as though your feelings do not matter, or your feelings are to be minimised as you are “too sensitive”. Regardless of the intent of the other person, you are entitled to feel the way that you do. There is nothing wrong with being sensitive and it’s okay to let your boundaries be known.
This can take a certain amount of assertiveness, which you may find challenging if you are person who avoids any form of perceived confrontation.
However, being assertive and setting boundaries doesn’t automatically equal confrontation and it is a skill that you can develop if you find this difficult.
Having a fear of confrontation doesn’t mean that you can’t decide for yourself where your boundaries are and to make them known.
How other people decide to then respond as a result is completely up to them.
If you are particularly concerned then it can also be useful to have a back up plan.
Some simple planning in advance means that you can leave before things can get too intense and it’s a good compromise that fulfils your sense of duty yet creates an appropriate amount of distance.
Save the difficult part for the start of the day so that you can spend the rest of the day relaxing and being able to just be yourself.
The biggest part of changing toxic behaviours within the family is being aware that it is happening and that something needs to change.
If you are part of a family system where some of these dysfunctional traits go unrecognised, devalued or dismissed, then it is very possible that things are unlikely to change.
Toxic dynamics within the family can become so ingrained as a way of being that the possibility of change is futile, which is why some families can eventually become distant or estranged.
As mentioned earlier in the post, the only thing that you can change is you. Accepting that there are some things and situations that are beyond your control can help you to make a decision in regards to how much contact or how often you keep in contact when you are part of a toxic family.
Christmas with the family can be stressful when behaviours are toxic, but it doesn’t have to be.
Don’t allow the behaviours or actions of others negatively impact the way that you feel. Just because things have always been done the same way, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t the potential for you to heal, to change and grow, fostering healthier relationships based on respect and mutual understanding.
You have the right to be respected and to feel comfortable whether that is at Christmas time or any other time of the year.
You can set your own traditions and do what’s best for you.
I’m Lizandra Leigertwood and I’m a counsellor and psychotherapist who works in St Albans, Hertfordshire and online. I work with individuals and couples to improve their relationships through understanding, empathy and better communication.
To work with me you can get in touch to book a free 15 minute telephone consultation.