How To Get Through Thanksgiving With Your Toxic Family, According To Experts
While some of us look forward to family get-togethers during this time of the year, for some, Thanksgiving isn't exactly the grand, joyous time it seems to be on Instagram or in the movies. If you have a toxic family or a toxic family member, you're probably well aware of how a holiday gathering can be a disaster. So what's the best way to get through Thanksgiving with your toxic family?
First off, it's important to know what a toxic family dynamic really looks like. "You can tell if your family is toxic if your level of anxiety escalates at the thought of interacting with family members," Dr. John Mayer, a Clinical Psychologist at Doctor On Demand, tells Bustle.
Ask yourself these questions: Does your fear level escalate at the thought of being around your family members? Does your family make you feel emotionally wounded during and after interacting with them? Does it ever get physical? Finally, what is your emotional reaction to being around your family members? Do they always elicit a negative reaction within you? These are all signs that your family is probably toxic.
"In a healthy family, there may be conflict, or you may not see eye-to-eye with people all the time," Dr. Sherry Benton, psychology professor emeritus at the University of Florida and founder and chief science officer of TAO Connect, tells Bustle. "But overall, feelings of positivity and support should dominate. At the end of the day, if you can walk away feeling generally supported, your family is probably not toxic. When you feel diminished, less than, or overly negative after spending time with your family, this can be toxic for your happiness and mental health."
So if your family, or one member of your family, is toxic, know that you're not alone in dealing with this. Here are some ways to help you get through Thanksgiving, according to experts:
1. Make Two Plans (One For Before, And One For After)
If you think you might be dealing with toxic family members, make a plan about how you’re going to handle it before you go. "Think about the types of conversations that make you feel diminished, and do your best to avoid those topics," Benton says. "If they’re brought up, try to minimize them and not add fuel to the fire."
Make sure you have a plan for afterward, as well. If you have healthy relationships with certain members of your family, it might be a good idea to process what happened and talk it out with them. Don't let the day's events fester inside your head. "After an encounter with a toxic member of your family, make it a priority to spend more time with people who are positive, helpful and add value to your life," she says.
If you can’t avoid the situation, Benton says, come up with plans beforehand so you’re not wallowing in the encounter with no escape.
2. Stay Neutral As Much As Possible
If the toxicity in the environment has nothing to do with you and is caused by other family members who just hate each other, psychotherapist Karen R. Koenig, M.Ed., LCSW, tells Bustle it's important to stay emotionally neutral. "No matter what, don’t get baited. Don't get pulled into arguments," Koenig says. "Think about something else to remain calm, change the subject, or decline to speak."
3. Be Compassionate
"If someone is toxic, they probably got that way because they grew up in a toxic environment," Koenig says. "You don’t need to like them, but some compassion will help you keep your cool and get through the day."
You can even start the day by setting a clear intention of how you want it to go. This could include monitoring yourself to ensure that you’re following through on being kind and compassionate to everyone. "You can’t control their behavior, but you can control your own," Koenig says.
4. Contain The Experience And Take Breaks
"Opt to only go for a discreet amount of time," psychotherapist, Natalia Amari, LMSW tells Bustle. Be clear and up front about how long you plan on staying and when you're going to leave.
During your stay, it's also important to take breaks away from toxic family members when you need it. If you start becoming overwhelmed, go to the bathroom to practice breathing exercices or just take a walk outside. "Be real with yourself about your family relationships, the dynamics and how this impacts you," Amari says. "From a place of good intentions, we often candy-coat the situation. But this takes a lot of energy and is usually unsuccessful. Instead, be real with yourself about it. You don't have to tell anyone your feelings. When we are honest in this way it allows us to take a more productive approach."
5. Set Your Boundaries And Make Them Known
If a family member criticizes you, yells at you, or puts you down in anyway, don't just sit there and take it. Stand up for yourself. "It is crucial to set boundaries with toxic family," Kimberly Hershenson, LMSW, tells Bustle. "Don't engage your family with inappropriate topics (your sex life, etc.). If you notice your family member only says rude things when they're alone with you, call for reinforcement."
If a family member criticizes you or your life choices, don't be afraid to call them out on it. "Asking about their intention for their criticism (i.e. Why would you say/ask that?) will bring awareness to what they're saying. It will help to either clarify what they truly mean or bring to their attention that you know they're intentionally trying to hurt you," Hershenson says.
6. Be Mindful Of Your Non-Verbal Communication To Avoid Conflict
If you want to avoid conflict with certain family members, it's important to pay close attention to your facial expressions and the tone of your voice. According to Doctor of Psychology and Licensed Clinical Social Worker Dr. Danille Forshee, the most influential communication is non-verbal (body language, facial expressions, and gestures) and para-verbal (tone of voice, pitch, and volume). "If you can be mindful of body language and your para-verbal communications this will lessen the likelihood that conflict will arise," Foreshee says.
7. Keep Your Expectations In Check
While it's always great to go into a family gathering with a positive mindset, it's also important to be realistic. If you know your family is toxic, it becomes that much more important. "Know that the occasion may have some bumps in the road, but you can still enjoy the time surrounded by your loved ones," Whitney Hawkins, LMFT, Licensed Psychotherapist and Owner of The Collaborative Counseling Center, tells Bustle. "I encourage people to roll with the punches and accept the reality of the day. This helps keep expectations low and minimizes the likelihood of being let down."
Just because it's Thanksgiving, it doesn't mean you have to spend time with people you don't like or who drain you mentally. "If there's an individual attending your holiday celebration who you'd rather avoid, you have permission to do so," Hawkins says. "Say hello, be polite, and find a seat at the other end of the table. You are not required to spend the holidays with anyone who brings you misery at all if that's your choice."
You can't choose your family, but you can choose what you decide to do in a potentially uncomfortable situation. If you want to go into Thanksgiving festivities with a positive mindset, hoping to spend time with the family members you are grateful for, then that's great! If you do decide to spend Thanksgiving away from your toxic family altogether, know that that's OK too. You're allowed to enjoy the day without feeling guilty regardless of whether you're spending it with or without your family.