Everyone's got one. Some of us have many. Yes, toxic family members are such a thing — and they really find their time to shine during the holidays. So, how do you deal with a toxic family member at the holiday dinner table when you're just trying to enjoy some Boggle and cranberry sauce from a can?
Now, first of all, know that you have the right and power to choose not to be around a toxic person — so if the healthiest option for you is to steer clear, honor that. Maybe this is the year that you watch 40 rom-coms in a row with your favorite friend and snack on an endless box of Oreos instead of going to the family functions.
"Spending the holidays with a toxic family member is a common stressor for many people," psychologist and coach Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, LMFT, LP, BCC, of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching, tells Bustle. "With my therapy and life coaching clients in this situation, the first question I ask is if they actually need to spend the holiday with this person, or simply feel obligated."
That opens up a discussion of why they may want to spend the holidays with this person or not, and puts the matter back into their control, Bobby says.
"Recognizing that this experience is, in fact, their decision, in itself can be empowering and also lead to a certain level of calmness," Bobby says.
But if you are going into a situation where you will be around a family member who is difficult (to say the least), do yourself the kindness of preparing and having tools from the get-go that will make the experience more emotionally safe for you.
1. Prepare Your Feelings In The Days Beforehand
Think about the things that make you feel centered and relaxed. Do those things. The lead-up to the holidays can feel wild and jam-packed, so carve out a little time to check-in with how you are feeling and what's going on inside.
"On the days leading up to the gathering, make sure you’re doing things that bring you joy or relaxation," Dr. Georgia Witkin, a clinical psychologist and the head of patient services development at Progyny, tells Bustle. "Be it meditation, a movie marathon or taking a long walk, the benefits of self-care will go a long way in prepping you for the toxicity."
There are no general “solve alls” as every person and every family is different, Witkin says, but going into the situation with some spiritual and emotional armor will definitely be helpful.
2. Identify How You Want To Feel At The Event
Expect that the toxic person is going to say and do what they usually do, and absolutely resist any hope or expectation that it will be otherwise, Bobby says. "This allows one to then plan how they will respond," Bobby says, and it also gives you time to identify how you want to think, feel, and behave.
"[If you identify the wish to feel] peaceful, content or compassionate, for example, it illuminates the specific behaviors and actions that you'll need to take to create those mood states," Bobby says. Staying closely connected to your core values is essential to this planning process.
"You cannot control your family member but you can control yourself," Bobby says. "Asking yourself who you want to be in your dealings with them creates a roadmap for you to follow."
2. Go Into The Situation With Defined Boundaries For Yourself
If you don't want to sit next to Uncle Jerry — you aren't sitting next to Uncle Jerry.
Just recognizing that certain family members give you less than stellar vibes, so to speak, can sometimes be a challenge in and of itself, so give yourself a moment before you get into the situation to figure out what works for you, counselor David Bennett of Double Trust Dating, tells Bustle.
"Go into the gathering with clear boundaries, such as 'not getting into a big debate' or 'not accepting cruel comments,'" Bennett says. When you are around the toxic family member, keep these in mind and assertively enforce them, whether that means leaving the room or saying you aren't participating in conversations about a particular topic.
2. Exercise The Power Of Avoiding
It might take a bit of finagling, but pay attention to your surroundings and where that person is stationed at the gathering. If they're watching the parade, go help your brother roast the veggies. If they insist on controlling all the details of the event, go take a walk.
"The easiest solution is to simply avoid the person as best as possible," Bennett says. "There is nothing wrong with simply not engaging the toxic person. Attach yourself to other people or find a place to go where you can get away from the person."
Doing your best to giving focus to high-energy, non-toxic family members can be a nice counter-balance to steering clear of the bad eggs.
3. Be Assertive Without Getting Sucked Into Drama
Be assertive with your boundaries, but don't get sucked in, Bennett says. And yes, it can be wildly difficult to remain non-reactive when someone is coming at you with a lot of bad energy. You might have the impulse to pounce like a cheetah on fire, figuratively speaking. Refrain if you can, or try to pause if you've snapped a bit.
"Toxic people love drama and love emotionally draining those around them," Bennett says. "When you engage them in an emotionally explosive way, they feed off of that. I suggest asserting yourself, like standing up for yourself if needed, or shutting down an unpleasant conversation, but do so in a calm and detached way."
4. Consider Some 'On The Spot' Calming Techniques That Work For You
"If you find yourself truly stuck in a situation that is causing you to become upset, try a few on-the-spot calming techniques," Dr. Dawn O’Malley, a licensed psychologist with Cardinal Innovations, tells Bustle.
O'Malley says simple things like taking a moment to grab a ginger ale, thinking about your ideal vacation spot, or focusing on your feet while you breathe can be silly-seeming but very effective techniques for "mini breaks." But truly, get creative with this. Is there certain music you can put on that makes you feel happy? A person you can call or text if things get uncomfortable for you?
5. Practice Compassion The Whole Darn Time
What the holidays are all about, right? Well, when it comes to toxic family members, consider compassion when approaching the situation and how difficult, tense, and even paralyzing it can seem.
"Have compassion for you, first of all, and for them, in that it will help you to not fully absorb the toxicity," Dr. Tamar Chansky, psychologist, anxiety specialist, and best-selling author of Freeing Yourself from Anxiety, tells Bustle.
"[Having compassion] doesn’t mean allowing the behavior," Chansky says. "You’re not going to engage with it. Demonizing them locks the negativity in your own mind and may make you feel shut down or on the defensive."
Remember that the reason this person is toxic is due to their limitations. Understanding that can give you a little freedom internally.
6. Give Yourself A Time Limit
Give yourself a time limit, therapist Ibinye Osibodu-Onyali, LMFT of The Zinnia Practice tells Bustle.
"If you choose to attend family events in which one or more of your family members are toxic, give yourself a time limit," Osibodu-Onyali says. "It's bad enough that you have to endure such discomfort, but your entire day does not have to be ruined."
Set a time limit for your visit and watch the clock, Osibodu-Onyali says. If your time limit is two hours, after two hours, figure out something to say that'll get you out of there.
"Note that although you might feel like you have to explain yourself for leaving so early, you really don't have to," Osibodu-Onyali says. "Perhaps you can arrive shortly before the food will be served and leave shortly after the meal is over. Keep it light and polite."
7. Do Something For You Afterwards
This is probably the most important part of this whole scenario. If you have been doing the emotional work of navigating a toxic person at a family event, do something fun or relaxing afterwards to decompress Osibodu-Onyali says.
"If your holiday ends up feeling sad, create an after holiday game plan," Osibodu-Onyali says. "Perhaps you can spend two hours with your family and then go home to a special treat that you order or cook yourself. Or maybe you can plan to do something special with a non-toxic loved one or a friend after you meet with your family."
We don't get to choose our families, Osibodu-Onyali says, but we sure can surround ourselves with healthy, loving friends who become like family. Here, here on that.
Keep in mind that your well-being can be the center of your approach to the holidays. While it might be possible for you to deal with your extremely critical grandma, if you have a family member that's deeply triggering for you, it is truly OK to bow out. And if you need help making the choice, talking it out with a trusted friend or a professional is a great starting point.
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, LMFT, LP, BCC, of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching.
Dr. Georgia Witkin, clinical psychologist at Progyny,
Counselor David Bennett of Double Trust Dating.
Dr. Tamar Chansky, psychologist and anxiety specialist.
Dr. Dawn O’Malley, a licensed psychologist with Cardinal Innovations.
Therapist Ibinye Osibodu-Onyali, LMFT of The Zinnia Practice.