Deck the Halls and Not Your Family


It’s time for an obligatory holiday blog, right? Nah. I do what I want. But this seems important. Holidays are hard for everyone but especially those with trauma. I thought I’d share some not so ordinary tips for the holidays. If you know me, you know I’m not going to tell you to follow my mother’s advice of “Just be polite.” Love you Mom, but no.

Nobody triggers us like family. For many of my clients, their family is the source of their original triggers. This isn’t always the case but for a good many of you it is. The families are full of toxic behaviors, passive aggressive actions, addictions, arguments where relatives expect you to pick sides, and sometimes even violence that requires the police to come peel you off of each other. It may seem "normal" because it's what you know, but it doesn’t have to be this way. I want you to remember your personal and assertive rights this holiday. You do not have to participate in chaotic holidays out of obligation or guilt.

If you’ve worked with me in any form, then you know that I don’t believe in people pleasing. I’m a pretty nice person, sure, but anyone who knows me also will tell you that I’ll be the first to point at the elephant in the room and say “that needs handling.” Fawning is a trauma response. We don’t do that here. We function in honesty, assertiveness, and respect of one another’s boundaries.

Here are some tips to ensure that you have the holiday YOU want to have without the messiness that comes with dealing with dysfunctional relatives:

Manage your Expectations

Expectations are really how we get disappointed- and we do it to ourselves. Yep, I said it. We do it to ourselves. Rather than trying to fortune tell how something is going to go, try to go in and just let it evolve as it will. (You can always leave if you hate it.)

Lately I’ve been very into the idea of “flow”- letting things evolve as they do. However, I’ve not always been good at that and I know it’s difficult for all of you too. Flow requires that you be confident in the idea that you can handle whatever comes at you. That can be difficult for all of us. As humans we are fallible, insecure, and don’t like pain. That can create a situation where we feel like we can’t protect ourselves, can’t handle the pain we think may be coming, or can’t handle whatever situation may come about due to these imaginary unforeseen variables. When things don’t go your way, you can view it as a disaster or an adventure. Either way it’s a black hole of unknown- it’s just viewed with dread or excitement. Personally, I prefer adventure!

I’m mostly speaking here of the expectations of others: the way they’ll respond to a gift, how perfect the tree will be, how great/awful/chaotic family dinner may be… with an expectation you’ll go in interacting as if it is that way from the beginning. At its worst this can even create the very situation you’re expecting! Try to go in neutral and just see what happens.

Practice Being Present

Along those lines, it’s also really important to check your expectations of yourself. If you want to be everything to everyone you’re going to exhaust yourself and not even enjoy your holiday. Everyone’s determination of what they want from their holiday is different, but for me it’s about getting together with my family and gratitude for what we have with one another.

Maybe you want to do it up big with the big tree, menorah, or whatever else goes in your home, all of the cookies and goodies, all of the gifts, all of the company- you get the point. Is that a reasonable expectation of yourself? I guarantee, the people around you would much rather have you present and participating then stressed out about all of the details. Make sure that you don’t get so wrapped up in performing that you aren’t even there.

There’s No Such Thing as Obligation

You are NOT required to do anything you don’t want to do. Read it again. Write it down. Take a picture and make it your cell phone background. LIVE IT.

Obligation is stupid. It means that you owe someone something. No, you don’t. The only person you owe is yourself- you owe yourself love, safety, and meeting your needs. I’m not saying to be a selfish jerk, but you can’t pour from an empty cup. You have to come first, so that those around you can be well served with the reserves you ‘ve got left.

As is often mentioned here, I see codependency, toxic families, and the like in my office constantly. These patterns control a person via emotional coercion such as guilt, shame, or protest behaviors. (Protest behaviors cause you to avoid confrontation with a person: things like passive aggressive comments or actions, stonewalling or cutting you out, making you uncomfortable via tantrumming, crying, making a scene, etc.) These patterns force you into old patterns of codependency, people pleasing, and fawning. Those behaviors are a no- go to me because they cause you to ignore your internal compass- “I don’t want a hug but it’s expected.” “I don’t have the money to buy this gift but she made it clear it had to happen.” “This person makes me uncomfortable but I don’t want to be rude.” Anyone that doesn’t understand you opting out of something that isn’t good for you isn’t someone that needs to be in your life.

A healthy response to “I’m sorry, I can’t come.” would be something like “What a shame. Maybe we can do dinner,” Or “ Well, we’ll miss you!” An unhealthy response like “but you HAVE to come,” “Mom is expecting you,” or “Wow. You just really don’t care if you ruin Christmas do you?” communicates that another’s needs come before your own and is NOT a good thing.

Remember that other’s feelings about you are not your responsibility. Your job is to care for yourself and those who are dependent upon you. Everything else is secondary. Your physical and emotional safety are priority.

Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

A good fence makes a big difference in feeling safe and feeling unprotected and vulnerable. It’s all about boundaries, which can be hard for anyone but particularly for people with trauma or psychological struggles of some kind. Boundaries are frightening. It feels like they create distance but it’s actually the opposite. When you know what to expect and you feel safe with someone that actually creates an ability to be authentic and vulnerable, which creates the closeness we all want.

Practice authentic, direct, assertive communication. Say what you mean. By all means, finesse the tone as best you can but it’s so important to say what you mean as it comes. My clients often hear me say that boundaries are the foundation of anger management. Our BIG emotions get that way because they’re ignored. We have smaller ones like annoyance, frustration, sadness, that warn us early on but if we’re conflict avoidant and don’t set that boundary it can continue to get crossed. As that happens, we get more and more irritated until we have a huge reaction. Set it early and this won’t be an issue. In general people respect those boundaries and aren’t necessarily dangerous to you when you ask them to do so.

You Don’t Have to Attend Every Argument You’re Invited To

I’d say this is probably the holidays summed up in one idea. There are two main ideas that circle around every holiday/celebration/family gathering in my world: The first is expectations of magical holidays, the second is the idea of dealing with a toxic family and the seemingly inevitable emotional turmoil that comes with that.

What if I told you it wasn’t inevitable? I’ve already told you how in all of the above points! Consider where you want to spend your time and energy, manage what you expect to happen, don’t allow others to control you via protest behaviors or their inappropriate expectations of you, and practice authentic communication and good boundaries.

The very last piece of this is that you can’t argue if there’s nobody to argue with! Opt out. You absolutely can. Let the communication fall flat, set a boundary, or exit the situation. If someone starts a conversation about something inappropriate like politics, religious factors outside of those expected for your respective holiday, or any other provocative topics you have those choices.

Once upon a time, we had taboo discussion topics that were understood to be so: politics, religion, people’s deeply personal topics like marriage, children, personal quirks or illnesses, etc. We don’t seem to have the same understood lines, but as individuals we can certainly train people where our lines are.

What does this look like? Let’s take one scenario to explain each form.

You have an Uncle who always seems to be raging about politics. Not everyone in the family agrees. For you, politics is a boundary. Not so much because you find politics distasteful, but more because not everyone agrees, it starts arguments, and it isn’t relevant or necessary to the holiday at hand.

So Uncle Politic comes in dressed in his holiday best but he made it a point to wear his purple “I believe in the lizard people” hat. You know your mother thinks he’s insane. You also know that two of your cousins agree with him and are passionate advocates of this viewpoint. You have three choices: you can ignore, you can set a boundary, you can remove yourself.

To ignore: You greet him politely. “Hey Uncle Politic! It’s been a long time! Come over here and let’s find you a seat by the tree.” Often, provocative people do so to obtain a response. No response, nothing to reward the behavior.

To set a boundary: “Hi Uncle Politic. It’s been a long time! Let me take your hat and put it in the coat room.” If he refuses to remove the hat- “I understand it’s important to you, but right now we want to spend time with each other outside of what’s happening in the world. It isn’t appropriate here so I need you to remove it.” If it escalated even further you have to make the choice of if you want to ask him to leave or not- if it’s not your house this may not be an option.

To remove yourself: First, I’d say you don’t need to remove yourself from the situation until the situation presents itself. The entire family may be so used to him that nobody engages. Let’s say the worst happens and at family dinner the topic comes up. Again, you can set the boundary “I don’t feel that this is appropriate dinnertime conversation and it’s not how I’d like to spend my holiday.” Protest behaviors WILL happen “Oh, come on! Why are you being so sensitive.” Just ignore that and move on. IF they still refuse to respect the boundary you can remove yourself. You don’t even have to make a big scene about it. You can be direct “I’ve asked that we not do this. I’m uncomfortable here so I’ll be heading home. It has been wonderful spending time with all of you.” You can’t have to say it angrily or upset, just matter of fact. You could also go the less direct “It’s getting late. I think it’s time for us to get home.” Removing yourself from the situation IS an option, regardless of what anyone says. Like I said, there’s no such thing as obligation. Anyone who deserves your time will do what they can to make sure that you’re not uncomfortable in that environment as long as your requests are within reason.

Practice Self Compassion

You’re human. You’re going to mess up somewhere. You might say something wrong, have a bad response to a gift, say something sarcastic to the wrong person, or mess up setting a boundary because you’re new at it. Go easy on yourself. We are always learning and growing and we deserve the space to mess up. Repair any damage where you can, learn, and do better next time. Above all else, give yourself the room and permission to act as you’d like- whether it be that you’re just too tired to go to that party, you don’t have the cash to give the giant gifts you’d like to, you fell asleep and the house isn’t as clean as it can be… it’s all okay! Nobody of quality is there to see the tree, the gifts, or the house. If you’re doing it right, you’re surrounded by people who love you and are there for you. None of the rest of it matters anyway. Maintain perspective.

As far as the holidays, you’ll notice this blog had a natural progression. We started with managing expectations- of the situation and of others. From there we built onto that with expectations of self so that you can remain present and make the memories you’re there to make in the first place. Then, consider where you’re willing to be present. You don’t HAVE to spend your time and energy anywhere you don’t want to. Once present, be authentic and real in your communication. This includes boundaries. Christmas (or whichever holiday) or not, you don’t get a free pass at crossing the line. Realizing from there that part of boundaries is not allowing people to bait you into arguments and control you via your emotions. And finally, realizing that it won’t all go perfectly, you’re a real life human, and it’s all okay. It’s messy and authentic and beautiful just as it is. You can do this.

Now go forth and celebrate!