How To Handle The Holidays With A Toxic Family

Right now, many folks are beginning the countdown to their highly anticipated trip home for the holidays, where they'll spend a long weekend eating too much, forsaking pants with zippers, and generally regressing to a pleasurable child-like state on their parents' couch. But for those of us who come from toxic families, the holiday season can feel like an advent calendar of anxiety — where instead of tiny delicious pieces of chocolate, every day reveals the gift of a new fear or source of stress that we manage to repress the rest of the year. Awww, Mom's fixation on my supposed bodily flaws and Cousin Beth's obsession with proving that she's more successful than me? You shouldn't have!

Trust me, I know of what I speak: in the years before I stopped talking to my mother, every holiday season felt like I was boarding not a train back to my hometown, but a time machine that took me back to a time in my life when my mercurial mother ruled every aspect of my life. Which was always exactly what would happen — my mother would yell, I would cry, and it would generally take me until mid-January to recover from the whole shebang.

If this sounds familiar to you, know that you're not alone, and that it doesn't have to be this way. Sure, the holidays for you may never be the relaxing trip to a world of reheated leftovers and premium cable like it is for some of your other friends, but spending some time with your family during the holidays doesn't have to ruin the rest of your year. Plan ahead, get some back up, and make use of some of the six tips below for spending the holidays with your toxic family and coming out the other side.

1. Don't Feel Like You Have To Lie About It

For me, one of the hardest parts about dealing with dysfunctional family drama over the holidays was admitting it to other people. Who wants to look your perkiest, most holiday-loving office mate dead in the eyes and tell her that, no, you don't just love Thanksgiving, because your parents typically start in about how you've always been a disappointment before the Rockettes even show up at the Thanksgiving parade?

So, for a long time, I lied. My close friends knew the truth, but when I was around coworkers and acquaintances, I just went along with them, agreeing with everything they said about how stoked they were to go home, just because I didn't want to seem weird or make them feel uncomfortable.

If you've never even thought of engaging in this sort of behavior, I tip my hat to you; but if you've found yourself doing it in the past, now's the perfect time to stop. You can stress other things you like about the holiday (time off work, holiday sales, charming leaf piles, etc), you can be totally honest, or you can just say that the holidays aren't a huge deal for you and leave it there. Only a total jerk will think you're a weirdo for having family drama; most people can empathize, if not outright relate.

2. Accept That It May Suck, And Focus On Just Getting Through It

Yes, I know, I know — no one is ever looking for advice with the word "suck" in it. But hear me out. Lowering your expectations can help take the edge off the heartbreak that many of us feel after spending time with toxic family.

A lot of us — especially those of us who put space between ourselves and our families during the rest of the year — can start getting hopeful as we plan our trip home, wondering if this will be the year that mom finally started therapy or dad finally admits that he's way too critical. Then we feel deflated when we walk in the front door and see that nothing has changed. Author Martha Beck wrote about this phenomenon in O Magazine, noting that "[t]he hope that our families will act perfectly—or even reasonably well—sets us up incapacitated by the dysfunctions we'll almost certainly encounter."

So this year, instead of getting your hopes up, set reasonable expectations beforehand. This way, if you family has changed, you still have the opportunity to be surprised and positively engage with them ... but you also won't have the wind knocked out of you if things are exactly the same as they've always been. You don't have to set your sights on finally making your family understand why the things that they do hurt you, or why you wish they would act differently. Just focus on surviving the day(s), and consider anything else positive that happens a bonus.

3. Have Some Friends On-Call

When dealing with toxic family, the ideal, of course, is to bring a friend or partner into the mix. Not only can a flesh-and-blood buddy help keep you grounded while dealing with your fam, but some dysfunctional families bust out their best behavior in front of outsiders (even if your family isn't like this, watching someone who's not used to your mom's rants or your dad's criticism react in shock can be a sort of balm for the soul).

But if all your friends are off doing their own thing over the holiday, make sure that there are a few who'll still be able to text with you as you go through the big day(s). Maybe they're fellow survivors of a toxic family situation; maybe they're just nice people who know they'll have some down time after their third serving of stuffing. It doesn't matter who they are — just that they're kind, have your back, and are willing to support you as you vent, cry or ask for a reminder that you're actually an awesome, competent adult.

If you're like a lot of people from toxic families, your friends have developed into your "real" family — and this is a good way to keep reminding yourself of this, while the people who share your genetic material may be falling to pieces around you.

4. Plan Ahead

One of the most upsetting aspects of being around toxic family can often be that you feel like you have no control. Lots of toxic families and family members thrive on creating emotional chaos — often in the form of putdowns and comments intended to bait you into fights, demands you can't possibly comply with, or other frustrating behavior. When you're in the thick of it, it can feel like you're stuck giving your family members whatever they want, regardless of what you want.

You can feel more in control by planning ahead and figuring out how to cope with many holiday problems before they even happen. Before you go home, take a mental inventory of past holiday situations that made you unhappy or uncomfortable. As Beck wrote in O Magazine, "Are there certain relatives you simply can't tolerate? Are there others you can handle in group settings but not one-on-one? How much time and intimacy with your family is enough? How much is too much?" Figuring out the answers to these questions now can save you a lot of stress and anxiety on the other side.

Once you've figured out exactly what parts of holiday time with your family trouble you, work on figuring out your boundaries, including what kind of conversations you're willing to have with them, what you're willing to do, and how much exactly you're willing to take.

If you see a therapist, now is a great time to discuss what your limits are, and develop strategies for sticking to them; if you're not in therapy, journal or talk to a trusted friend to figure out coping strategies. Planning ahead allows you to better deflect and shut down potentially painful interactions — and if I may get personal, irritating a trouble-making family member by only giving super-boring answers to their questions can be kinda fun.

5. Have An Exit Strategy

Your family may not be toxic enough for this to come into play; but if they are, make sure that you know how you'll leave if things become impossible to bear. Do you have hometown friends who will let you spend the night on their couch? Do you know the local train or bus schedule to get yourself back home?

Sketching all of this out beforehand can create immense peace of mind — and knowing that you have this option, rather than simply sitting there and taking it all night, can sometimes help keep toxic family drama from cutting too deep.

6. Ask Yourself If You Really Have To Go In The First Place

Guilt, shame, and a sense of obligation are powerful emotions; in fact, for those of us from really toxic families, they might be the only emotions convincing us to stay in touch with the people who made us. And sometimes, listening to those emotions and staying in touch with our families to avoid guilt is the right choice for us.

But if you've hit the point where the emotional harm you experience visiting home easily trumps whatever guilt you may be dodging by visiting the fam, you might want to start thinking about your options. Is dutifully heading home for ritualistic carving of turkey, followed by cranberry sauce and nine hours of insults about how you're not doing as well as your brother, worth it?

Not visiting your family over the holidays doesn't have to be an act of anger; as Lauri Apple wrote on Jezebel, "Sometimes it's just healthier and more loving to let everyone have their space, until a better time comes for sharing one space." Taking time to do the holidays on your own might actually present you with the opportunity to develop new seasonal traditions with friends — seasonal traditions that make you happy, rather than suck the very lifeblood from your veins. Which, funnily enough, might finally give you something to feel thankful for.

Images: AMC, Giphy (6)