Among your friends, it might be the eggnog-filled, tinsel-wrapped, most wonderful time of the year, but for people who grew up with toxic parents, the holidays can often mean extra stresses and challenges. And by "extra stresses and challenges," I mean that the next month or so might be a head-long dive into anxiety, depression, panic, guilt, shame, and all those other fun emotions that make you want to hide under your comforter.
I know that the holidays are stressful for almost everyone (and that having a toxic family is a difficult vocation year-round), but those of us who struggle with our families sometimes find that December pushes us to our breaking point. Whether it's going against our better judgment and giving our toxic mom a call because we're feeling sentimental (those damned holiday commercials!), or attending a family gathering in order to avoid guilt or see another family member that we miss, the holiday season can often find us especially vulnerable to threats, demands, insults, and other negative comments from the people who made us.
In her book, Mothers Who Can't Love , Susan Forward, Ph. D — author of the self-help classic Toxic Parents and a general titan in the field of trying to navigate life when your relationship with your parents makes you miserable — says that a key trait of toxic mothers and others is that they "assume that their likes and needs are more important than yours," which leaves you vulnerable to confrontation every time you express a need or like counter to theirs.
Forward also says that developing boundaries can help you protect yourself from a toxic parent's provocations, because "emotional boundaries define how people are allowed to treat you." The three techniques below focus on expressing boundaries to your toxic parents when they engage in negative emotional behavior towards you.
1. Threatening And/Or Guilt-Tripping You
It Might Sound Like: "If you don't come home to see me this holiday, I'll get very lonely and feel depressed for months again;" "The stress of dealing with you will probably give me cancer or a heart attack;" "It's OK, I'll be dead soon anyway."
What It Really Is: If your parent threatens general negative consequences or emotional harm, they're most likely engaging in emotional blackmail. Emotional blackmail is when a person wants something from you — attention, approval, power — and they are prepared to go to extremes in order to make you feel like you have no choice but to give in to their demands. In their book Emotional Blackmail, Susan Forward, Ph.D. (seriously, the MVP of troubled family relationships) and Donna Frazier describe the key components of emotional blackmail as fear, obligation, and guilt.
This is where boundaries come in — your emotional blackmailer believes that you'll feel too guilty to put taking care of your own mental health over their needs. Forward and Frazier note that “[w]hen our sense of obligation is stronger than our sense of self-respect and self-caring, blackmailers quickly learn how to take advantage.”
What You Can Do: Odds are, if your parent is an emotional blackmailer, you already know it. So your best option is to prepare. Randi Kreger, author of the excellent self-help tome Stop Walking On Eggshells , wrote in Psychology Today that if you know you'll be in a situation where you must interact with someone who may emotionally blackmail you, you can protect yourself by planning in advance what you'll say and how you're willing to react to various scenarios. For instance, tell yourself — before you even get on the bus to see your family — that if your dad starts saying that his health is getting worse because you don't visit enough, you will not yell or promise to visit more, and instead say something neutral like, "I'm sorry to hear you feel that way."
Kreger recommends that, if you shut down an emotional blackmailer and they demand a response, "simply say, 'I feel I am doing what is best for both of us. I’m sorry if you don’t agree.'"
2. Expecting You To Be Their Therapist
What It Might Sound Like: "Your father just won't listen to me — you know how that always is — even though I've been telling him and telling him. What can I do? And you know, I also keep having this problem with my coworker — she's always causing trouble for me, I don't know what she has against me— and the dry cleaner keeps losing my jackets on purpose ... Sometimes I think I should just give up."
What It Really Is: In a healthy adult parent-child relationship, it's totally normal for both parties to listen to each other's problems and offer up advice. But in an unhealthy relationship, the counseling only runs one way — you're to listen to your parent go on about their problems for any length of time that they see fit, but they are not interested in providing the same support to you. In fact, if you bring up your own problems, they may find a way to turn the conversation around so that it is about them ("Wow, your boss sounds a lot like this boss I had in the '80s. Now, this guy...")
If your parent acts like this, they're being narcissistic — and, as Anna Alemendrala noted on Huffington Post, "A narcissistic parent will trample all over their family to address their own desires without giving much thought to what anyone else needs."
What You Can Do: You can't fix your parent. You probably know that at this point, but it never hurts to hear it from someone else. In fact, talking to you at length about their problems in a non-constructive way will likely leave your parent worse off than if you didn't talk at all — many experts believe that venting leads to more anger, not any sort of emotional release. So while you may feel like you're performing a necessary service for a lonely parent (and martyring yourself a bit in the process), know that listening to a parent's rants or lists of angry complaints is actually negative for both of you.
If your parent has a pattern of doing this — say, every time you visit, the entire weekend is spent going over every detail of your mother's professional disappointments — there are two main options you can take. If you think your parent can change, you can take a page from life coach Cheryl Richardson, who wrote in O Magazine that "there are specific words that you can use to confront this family member or friend in a graceful, loving way," and then offers up this example: "'When you complain about your boss every week, it leaves me feeling drained of energy. If you're willing to do something about the situation, I'll support you 100%, but I can no longer listen to your complaints. Are you willing?'"
However, if you know that such a request will only lead to more drama, practice disengaging and changing the subject. Try talking to other family members as much as possible. In my own life, I found that imagining how it looked from the outside was a great help — while I felt like I was being crushed by the weight of my mother's rants, someone passing by the scenario would probably just roll their eyes at my mom. That imaginary eye roll often kept me from completely losing myself in my mother's complaints.
3. "Complisulting" You
What It Might Sound Like: "Your partner's job is so pathetic, she's not good enough for you;" "I bet you could have that promotion if you just put effort into your appearance for once."
What It Really Is: Parental complisults (that would be insults thinly-veiled as compliments) can range from "helpful" undermining comments about how you could obviously achieve goal X if you just fixed flaw Y; to comments especially crafted to bait you into a screaming fight; to straight-up insults about your body, mind, friends, work, partner, whatever. You probably grew up with this, so part of you feels that its normal — and that whatever your toxic parent is saying is at least a little true. This is especially common when your parent frames their insult as being said "out of love." It's not.
What You Can Do: Advice columnist Captain Awkward notes that if your parents insist on making constant negative and undermining comments about your choices, you can "call them on it and change the subject (or end the conversation)." So if your mother can't manage a single conversation without making a rude remark about your body, don't just smile and nod — make it clear that any insult to you ends the conversation, full stop.
Awkward goes on to note that when you do this, "[y]ou’re basically retraining your parents to realize that you can live with their disapproval but you can’t live with their rudeness and unkindness, and the price of treating you like crap around this is that you will talk to them less and be around less."
The Bottom Line
As you go see your parents this holiday — or any day — know that using these techniques, and shutting down their toxicity, has nothing to do with love. You may or may not love your toxic parent, but love doesn't mean you have to let them hurt you. In fact, if you do love your toxic parent, the only way you're going to be able to give them any love and support is if you create the boundaries that you need in order to protect yourself from being hurt by them first.
So don't feel guilty for protecting yourself. Love is about caring for someone and connecting with them; it isn't putting yourself last, or letting others hurt you — no matter what you were raised to believe.
Images: Fox; Giphy (3)