holiday season

Coping with Toxic/Abusive Families this Holiday


    It’s that time again! And, no, not just the time to be overwhelmed by a busy holiday season - all the gift-getting, party-planning, and social-gathering.  It's that time where the whole world pauses to focus on family.  For many across the world, the holidays are when all the scattered relatives of each splintered tree-branch come together in one town, or even under one roof.  People will be cheerfully hugging and catching up with siblings and cousins, moms and grandpas.  There will endless Instagram photos of reunions with big smiles, quotes in curly lettering, and captions pushed to their text limit on how much family is everything.  It’s the lifeblood.  We will see, “Don’t wait to make amends; none of us are promised tomorrow!”.  Yes, we’re only days away from those insistent posts and overbearing nudges from others to revel in the company of family.  Never forget:“Forgive. Love. Cherish!”

    But, for an inordinate amount of the population?  Family is anything but merry, warm or inviting.  It’s the source of pain, and loss, abandonment, and grief.  It’s abuse and yelling, belligerence and guilt-tripping.  In countless tiny corners, there will be an adult survivor of child abuse wrestling with themselves, tearing out their insides, trying to decide if they should answer their mother’s text.  Another will have agreed to come to the Christmas dinner only to immediately regret it, and now there's no way out.  Another is dessssperately waiting for their family to invite them — anything to show that maybe they care.  Maybe they weren’t forgotten.  Maybe their family actually wonders if they’re alive or not.  The fact of the matter is that all over this globe are trauma survivors with families that are incredibly toxic.  They are not to be welcomed with open arms.  They will require courage of steel just to share the same room.  And, some shouldn’t even be spoken to, let alone ‘kissed and made up’ with.  Right now, there are survivors everywhere wishing they could have the family others have, and are messily scrambling to figure out how they're even going to be okay.  ...and WHAT on earth they are going to do.

“Should I go?”  “Should I invite them?”  “They sounded so sweet this time...”  “Maybe she’ll forgive me.”  “Maybe he won’t get so drunk this time.  He's doing better I heard.”  “I should show her I’m healthy now; she’ll be proud of me, right?”  “He’s always so inappropriate, he can’t be around my kids.”  “...but he’s sick? This could be his last Christmas.”  “I just want my mom.  ...  ...…but she’s evil.”  “I’m so stupid.  Why would I ever think they’d wanna see me again?” “ I can't breathe.”  “What if I’m just being dramatic?”  “Am I being selfish?”  “I should respond quick before they get upset.”  “What if she turns the rest of the family against me for not inviting her? They’d all hate me. They already hate me.”  “I could do it if I’m drunk. Yeah, okay.  It's just once.”  “My kids haven’t even met that side of the family. Am I keeping them apart?”  “I’ll try. I can face them! I’m an adult now. They can’t hurt me! …..right?  No… n-n-no.  Not right.

    These words, and farrrr more, are part of the endless monologues we know are running through so, so many of you this holiday season.  We know how painful it can be to watch everyone else revel in high spirits and the warm embraces of family.  They’re sharing memories and playing games, digging up inside jokes and sharing presents.  But, for you, the holidays remind you of fights.  Soooo many fights.  So much yelling and pain, mind games, abuse — constant brokenness.  And on the other side, there are those of you who recall perfect, plastic Norman Rockwell holidays that were a complete masquerade of the abusive family that lived behind them — forever confusing you of what’s real. You can’t stomach faking your way through even ONE more of those.  But how do you make it your holiday?  How do you honor yourself when that may include shutting others out?  How do you make this season safe, and calm, and what you always wanted and deserved - without the suffocating guilt or aching loneliness?  If you’ve never been taught how, what do you do about FAMILY?  There are no easy answers, but perhaps some of our thoughts can help...

1.)  Remind yourself immediately you are allowed to set boundaries. 

    You are an adult now.  You are allowed to say NO.  You are allowed to say that this year you have different plans that do not include abusive, manipulative or negligent individuals. …even if it’s a parent who lives alone or a relative who is terminally ill.  You know what you can expect of their behavior better than anyone. And, if you know it’s anything that wouldn’t honor you as an adult — or your children if you have them — then you are allowed to turn them down.  You do not owe them your heart or your home no matter how tangled up things feel.  No matter how many Facebook posts tell you that you must, and no matter how many photos of others' make you pine for what could be -- if you know that your family is toxic, or scary, or can make you feel smaller than a speck on the wall, YOU ARE ALLOWED TO SAY NO.  You have complete and total permission here.  You can set boundaries.  And setting those boundaries is what healthy, strong and respectable adults do.  It’s not being selfish.  It’s not being “dramatic”.  It’s not being mean.  It’s being mature, and level-headed, and strong as f—- frick.  ;)

2.)  Beware of the wolves in sheep’s clothing. 

    Holidays are a prime time for reflection and fuzzy feelings — they get the best of all of us sometimes.  They can make even the baddest of people soften their edges and become just sooo very warm and inviting.  As a survivor of abuse or toxic family dynamics, it can be incredibly hard to resist.  That hurt, little you desperately wants them to mean what they say and to feel their affections.  It’s all you’ve ever wanted.  And they seem so sincere!  “This could be the year!”  And, it really could be.  Bad people can change, and amends can be made.  But if those amends couldn’t wait or you know they wouldn’t be made outside of the holiday season, beware that their intentions may not be so pure.  If they don’t wanna work anything out and speak to you about things before the holiday - or they're deeply offended by you asking to wait until after the busy season to strike things back up - they may not miss you as badly as they say they do.  They may be toying with your heart.  …again.  And it’s going to be so hard to resist.  That’s to be expected.  It’s even entirely understandable because it comes from that beautifully innocent place in you that exists in all of us.  It’s out of the purest kind of hope — and it’s one that we don’t want to see get crushed by their hurtfulness.
    If you know that your toxic family member has a tendency to turn on the charm during holidays or special events, and they're trying to lure you into holiday celebrations, convince you they should come stay for awhile, or just reeeeeally want to see you all of a sudden?  You may need to label this fluffy little sheep as the wolf they’ve always been.  Run it by a friend, see if they get the same warm feels you do.  If they don’t, trust their intuition if they respond saying they don’t wanna see you get hurt.  If it’s meant to be, your family member will be there when the holidays pass. If not, returning their messages now may just be returning yourself to being abused again.  You don’t deserve that.  You never did.

3.)  Take time to grieve.

    For some of you, your abusers may have passed on.  And for others, it's the idea of a happy, healthy family that is long gone and passed.  There is also the mourning of a childhood that was robbed of some of the simplest holiday joys, which can rub your heart raw as you celebrate as an adult.  Holidays can bring up so, so much grief whenever it feels like something extraordinary is missing.  For those with toxic or abusive families, there was always something vital missing.  And, as we get older and lose people in our lives, the grief of loved ones no longer here can compound all these losses into one, soul-crushing ball of pure pain.  If the person no longer alive was an abusive family member, you may even find yourself additionally vulnerable to a flood of traumatic memories, too - not just the grief.  Memories may feel “safer” to reveal themselves to you now that the person is no longer alive or a threat to you.  The same can be true even if you only set firmer boundaries and closed doors on relationships.  They may not have passed away, but a book has been tightly closed and your mind can feel a little sturdier to go back and flip through some of its pages. If you know this is a possibility, labeling it for yourself ahead of time will spare your poor heart and mind a great deal of added anguish. 
    Surround yourself with as much support as you can.  Whether that is through a therapist, friends, a partner, or other siblings/family members who may be experiencing something similar - try not to leave yourself too isolated or without support.  Once you have that, allow yourself some time to grieve. Set aside 20 minutes to let your mind go to all of “those places”.  Feel the feelings.  Acknowledge the hole in your chest.  Let yourself stomp and clench your fists at how unfair it is.  Let yourself cry.  You deserved so much better.  You always did.  It’s okay to be sad and to feel it all.  By setting aside time to feel this in small doses, it will likely save you from alllllllll that pain just washing over right as you go to put gifts under the tree, or as you're carrying dishes back to the kitchen.  Honor your feelings.  Pace them out.  You'll be freer and lighter and less likely to be taken down by a Grief Tidal Wave™.  And just trust us, those are vicious. ;)

4.)  Create new memories.

    The holidays are as much about reflecting on old memories as they are about creating new ones.  But, for trauma survivors, we think the emphasis should be sooo much heavier on creating new ones.  Now is the time to do all the things you wanted to as a child but weren’t allowed.  Play with kids' toys.  Make a lot of noise.  Run through the house.  Indulge in an extra dessert if you never let yourself do so.  Watch the movies you wanna watch, invite ONLY the people you want to invite, go to the parties you wanna go to, and stay home in PJs and slippers on the nights you wanna stay in!  This holiday can be 100% yours - finally!  Your life is invaluable and you should spend it how, and with whom, you are most happy.  You might not have an Ugly Christmas Sweater family portrait with all the cousins and in-laws to post on Facebook, but you also were spared a bunch of awkward conversations, backhanded compliments, and most likely being made to feel like a lot less than you're really worth.  You deserve to do things on your terms.  And for once that doesn't have to include anyone yelling at you; telling you all the things you messed up; shaming your job, or your weight, or your partner, or your house.  No fighting, no guilt-tripping, no violence.  You get to redefine what this Christmas/Hanukkah/etc means to you.  You get to rewrite what your New Years Eve will look like.  You also get to start a fresh new year!  And, guess what.  Good news is you don’t have to wait for a new year to start living for, and honoring, you.  START RIGHT NOW!  Make new memories.  Meaningful ones.  So many new ones you can't even keep track!

5.)  Celebrate every small victory. 

    This shizz is hard.  It's tough, tough stuff.  It is so hard to know what the right decision is at any given moment.  And you’re not gonna get ‘em all right.  …you just aren’t.  But for each and every thing you accomplish, celebrate it! Acknowledging the toxic people in your life is a big step for many of you.  Letting yourself even temporarily *consider* that not seeing them this year is even an option may also be the biggest step you’ve ever made.  Asking yourself the hard questions, acknowledging your needs along with anticipating others' intentions, signing off of social media, and tuning out any of the guilting messages around you — these are HUGE steps.  And for many of you, this year will be the very first in taking any of them.  For each and every single boundary you set, and every last one you stand strong in keeping— CELEBRATE IT!  You are doing things most can’t even imagine conquering amidst all the other hustle and bustle of the season.  Your heartstrings are so tangled up and confused and they just don’t know what’s good or bad or sideways sometimes.  And none of that is your fault.  It’s not as simple as knowing your family can be toxic and just staying away.  It’s not even CLOSE to that simplistic!  Setting boundaries is one of the most critical, most difficult, and most powerful steps in a trauma survivor’s life.  Doing so with toxic and/or abusive family members is Next Level, Achievement Unlocked kind of strength.  And, we’re right behind you 110%. For each baby step and large victory you make along the way,  know that we’re also cheering with you as you take each moment to celebrate these successes yourself.  Because it’s just that important. :)


    So, this holiday season, please know that you are not truly alone in this - even when it feels like it. We are here.  And there are tons of others just like you, sitting with these exact same heavy feelings, and possibly a hefty dose of envy that they don’t get to have the same easy joy the rest of the world gets to have.  They’re making these same kinds of hard decisions, going back and forth staring endlessly into their phones, lamenting over what the right call is to make, too.  And, some of you might have to face unsafe or toxic people against your will, just because the circumstances have made it so.  We know this, are pained for you over this.  We extend our deepest amounts of compassion to you.  Please know that you are in our hearts and that we are sending you all the safety nets and love that exist for you.  For others, you will have decided that this is the year you are choosing to say yes to family members again.  And if you feel you’ve come to that decision earnestly and not out of the expectations a traumatized, young version of you feels obligated to meet - then you have our full support.  We applaud the strength you’ve gathered in yourself to get to this place in your healing.  For the rest of you who are saying NO to toxic/abusive family members?  You deserve all the praise and love and support there is to go around!  You should be so so proud of yourselves.  All of you.  Getting through this season at all?  Fighting the good fight?  It's worth its weight in gold, no matter what the fight actually looks like. :)

    In closing, we know this is an incredibly tough time of year for so many more reasons than just these. We’ve even made a guide to surviving the holidays with C-PTSD that tackles the other ways this season can be far too much to take.  We encourage you to read that (or read it again!) just to recharge yourself.  That way you can feel as if you're able to head into these upcoming weeks with a clear head, a bundle of deep breaths, and a game plan to guide you through.  We are thinking of you and sending our utmost compassion out to all survivors everywhere.  And we're asking others to do the same!  May you never feel forgotten or unseen.  And, may your holidays be safe, and wonderful, and special to you.


Surviving the Holidays with C-PTSD / DID

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    The holiday season is stressful for everyone.  But for many with Complex PTSD and dissociative disorders, it can be the absolute worst time of year.  While there are often bright spots, there are unique struggles that trauma survivors undeniably face as the year comes to a close.  Whether out and about, or gathering with family, the holidays can be so loud and busy and overstimulating - in other words, a nightmare for anyone with a posttraumatic condition. But there are countless hidden things survivors can often struggle with that many may not even realize - including survivors with a different history.  Many of you will have to face family or extended family that were the source of your trauma.  Others will have to gather around unsupportive or toxic family/friends who don't value your mental health or personal wellbeing.  For many survivors, the holidays are actual anniversaries of past trauma or violence. The holidays are also an unforgiving battleground to the many who struggle with food, disordered eating, and/or addictions.  To add insult to injury, an upsetting number of trauma survivors are grappling with chronic physical health issues, too - most of which came as a result of their trauma whether they realize it or not.  They're going to be in pain -- wanting to engage but unable. The list goes on and on - and, we know just how hard many of you will be fighting just to stay above the water.  We want to help however we can.

   Because so many of you will have very different holiday plans, different trauma histories that will involve very different triggers, and varying levels of safety or stages in recovery -- when it comes to managing your symptoms, there can be no one-size-fits all guide to getting through. But, there are, however, some universal things that remain true for most everyone.  We care very deeply about your health and wellbeing and don't want you to feel like you're going at it alone.  So, here are some of our suggestions to help get you through the holiday season safely, with your sanity intact, and knowing someone has your back.  Take what applies to you and leave the rest, and please feel free to comment some of YOUR suggestions as well to keep extending support to our community of survivors.


Our list to get through the holidays:

Stay grounded.  Remaining grounded is your first and strongest line of defense to any of the things you'll face during the holidays.  If you aren't grounded, none of your coping skills will be as effective.  Keep textured items in your pockets, bags, and/or car.  Carry a notecard on you or in your phone that can remind you of the date, that you're safe and an adult now, as well as any other orienting details that are important to you.  Keep your feet on the floor whenever you can.  Try to refrain from staring off or zoning out when things get too dull (or too heated).  Keep your phone on you to play music or engage in interactive apps whenever you feel yourself drifting.  Look around the room - take note of all the pretty things that catch your eye as you look about.  Talk or engage with someone if you can; vocalize in some way if you're alone.  Step out and wash your hands or face in cool water.  Go outside for a bit to reinvigorate yourself with fresh air or cold temperatures.  Anything you can to stay present in the here and now!  (We have 101 Grounding Techniques right here for ya if you need them!)

Remember: You have a voice. This is your life, your safety, your sanity.  You matter.  You are allowed to set boundaries for yourself, say no, change your mind, make choices that honor you.  If you don't want to visit with someone, or know seeing them will trigger or stress you too greatly - you DO NOT HAVE TO GO.  We understand that for some of you, particularly those who still live with unsafe people, saying no would actually put you in danger.  We understand that necessity and do not want to encourage you to put yourself in harm's way.  But for those of you whom it just feels scary or would make you feel guilty, ask yourself if those temporary feelings are more important than the endless, unpredictable amounts of distress spending time with those people would cause you.  Use your voice.  Set boundaries.  You are an adult and are allowed to say no now and have it be respected.

Plan ahead.  One of the best strategies to prevent an utter disaster is to plan ahead in the most detailed way possible.  List what kinds of things you're going to do before to make sure you go in to any stressful event confidently and steadily.  Describe the things you're going to do for yourself during to make sure you're grounded, level and calm.  Then, be incredibly specific about what you're going to do after to decompress and unwind, and then [most importantly!] what you'll do for self-care.  This is called a "Before/During/After Plan" or BDA.

Don't forget the basics.  It sounds painfully simple, but it's so easy to forget. Take your medications. Eat well. Stay hydrated. Force yourself to rest your body and mind even if you cannot sleep. Don’t neglect your physical health. These things are as much your foundation as being grounded is. Forgetting any of these basic needs can make you more vulnerable to symptoms, which can lead to a full unravelling later.  

Internal communication.  Those of you who have internal parts (DID/OSDD) will need to make sure you're doing a lot of internal communication.  Acknowledge with one another the difficult, painful, scary, or triggering things that you're going to be facing.  Validate those feelings and fears with each other.  Then, together, plan ahead for how you'll work together and arrange yourselves for each event on your calendar.  Also discuss what you might do to honor one another, perhaps even share gifts if that feels right.  (..even if those gifts to one another are as simple as letting a part watch a movie at home later, or color a picture.  It doesn't have to be a material present :)  )  Acknowledging and validating what's so painful about these holidays will make you less likely to be blindsided by traumatic material mid-holiday celebration if someone inside encounters a trigger you never saw coming.

Incentivize.  It's no secret that many survivors struggle with self-harming or other self-destructive behaviors or addictions.  Others are warring with their absolutely devastating depression, OCD, or similarly incapacitating conditions.  Get yourself a gift or other incentive that you aren’t allowed to have until January 2nd (or after each individual holiday).  If you got through the whole holiday season self-harm free or were able to accomplish things you were too depressed or too afraid to do, it's waiting for you to open when you've met your goal!

Let yourself grieve.  It seems counterintuitive to lead yourself into painful emotions, but it makes them far less likely to bubble up just as you're getting comfortable or having a good time.  Let yourself be sad.  Let yourself be angry.  Let yourself grieve lost holidays or entire childhoods of happy memories.  Allow yourself be upset about what your traumatic experiences have robbed you of or made more difficult.  Take a moment to be angry about neglectful and/or dismissive family and friends who won't support you the way you deserve to be supported.  Once you've given yourself a moment to feel these things, your mind will feel freer to enjoy the holidays and less determined to remind you that it was really, really hurt by all that's associated with them.

Take time for you.  You don't have to be "on" from Thanksgiving to January.  You don't have to be "on" morning to night on any holiday either.  Take breaks.  Leave the room.  Take a walk outside.  Sit in peace in a bedroom or unoccupied room for a moment. Those 15 minute breathers will do you and your nervous system wonders before returning to the festivities.

Support system.  If you have friends or family that support you heathily, connect with them.  Make it a point to fill them in on what's going on and what's worrying you.  Plan to connect with them even if for just 5 or 10 minutes before/after holiday gatherings.  We know that many therapists aren't available during holiday weeks, so touching base with friends and family that have your back can help you feel less stranded or as if you've been abandoned in your weakest moments.

Breathe.  Again, it sounds so simple, but you'll be amazed how many times you're completely overwhelmed and are actually holding your breath.  Take several deep cleansing breaths every time you feel your tension meter rising.

Limit alcohol/substances.  The holidays don't make this super easy for those who like to partake, but any level of intoxication can make traumatic material just a trigger away from flooding you.  ...and leaving you quite defenseless against it.  Try to be extra responsible during tough times - even if your whole body is zinging or feels so pressurized you're going to burst.  Going for another drink makes you far more vulnerable for everything to actually come cascading out of you - especially if you were already tense enough to 'need' that drink.

Remember: You do not have to stay.  Just like before, your needs matter.  You are not obligated to do anything you don't want to or for longer than you desire. You do not have to feel guilty.  You don't owe anyone an explanation for why you're leaving, where you're going, or why you want to go so soon. You are allowed to leave early.  You are being a proactive bamf by taking care of you. If you don't think you can count on your voice to be strong enough in the moment, make plans to see someone immediately after a gathering and make it known ahead of time that you can’t stay long.  Don't have anyone free to do that with or are traveling?  There are even apps that can help you get out of a situation you don't want to be in. :)  Even if you have to get clever about it, you are still allowed to go when you've had enough.  Period.

Physical safety. If you MUST visit (or already live) with unsafe people, and things escalate but you don’t feel you can leave the room, step outside, or leave entirely…. If at any moment you feel things are going to erupt into violence, apps like SafeTrek exist that will bring the police to your location without you ever making or answering a call. (This app is valuable for many other scenarios, for trauma survivors especially, and is highly recommended.  It is available for iOS and Android.)  You can also dial 911 yourself if you feel you can and just leave it open for an operator to listen to the chaos.  Many are familiar with this, and they may be willing to send a wellness check.  If you don’t feel either of those are safe options, or that a visit from police would make things less safe for you later, take some time now to brainstorm what WOULD feel safe to you.  Can you make a plan with a friend that would have them call you if you text a certain word?  To interrupt the chaos?  To force them to hush because someone on the phone might hear them, or because you had to get up and go to another room?  Do you have an ally in the family/friend group who could help you?  What feels right to you?  If your answer is “Just take it” (the abuse), I urge you to reconsider.  You are important.  You are valuable.  You are worthy of basic needs: safety.  You do not need to accept this or endure this any longer.  You have a voice and you have a brilliant mind that can find something else.  Anything else.

Conquering loneliness.  Many of these tips revolve around gatherings with others.  But, for some of you, much of the holiday season is actually spent alone (either by choice or circumstance).  Since loneliness can breed all sorts of darkness in the mind, plan your own holiday time for you.  Make the day a day that you treat yourself like you never do.  Watch movies, take a bath, paint your nails, turn your music up, watch new shows on Netflix, read a book, make yourself an elaborate meal, celebrate yourself and how far you’ve come.  Go ahead and make all of those slummin it with the fam jealous that you were at home having the time of your life in your PJs, coloring an adult coloring book, with Christmas cookies and tea. ;) But, more seriously, if you really feel like it's just going to be too hard even if you make it a fun day for you - just like those spending time with others - make a plan for the day.  Outline it.  What will you do before to make sure you're at your strongest? What are you going to do during to keep yourself steady?  And what will you do after to decompress and take care of yourself?  Let's hope your plan has TONS of self-care and self-treating in it.  You deserve it!

Be kind to yourself.  The holidays are hard.  For everyone.  Yes, even those who have it all together.  It's never going to be perfect.  You're likely going to make mistakes, have bad days, be a little short with someone you love, or have a day that you aren't the most patient.  You may stumble, or even completely fall apart.  While we hope that doesn't happen, it's okay if it does.  Life is a process, and every year is different.  None of us get it right every time, or even most of the time.  The best and only thing to do after something goes wrong is to practice some self-kindness.  Cut yourself some slack and remind yourself that now, if any a time, is the time you need comfort the most...especially from yourself.  Be gentle.  If you wouldn't tell one of your friends they were stupid or bad for making the exact same mistake, then you aren't either.  Breathe. It's okay. You're gonna be okay.


  And we're here.  So, you're going to be more than okay :)  

  We are sending you the best wishes and warmth from all of us at Beauty After Bruises.  You are always in our hearts and we'll be thinking of you tons this holiday season.


Don't miss our follow-up article on
Coping with Toxic/Abusive Families During the Holidays!
You can find that here!