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.