One of the toughest parts of holiday blues to contend with is the constant external messaging this is the warmest, coziest, most wonderful time of the year. For people with toxic families, this can trigger a cycle of imbuing us with false hope, only to be devastated when we go home and realize everything is exactly as painful as we remembered. It's worth keeping in mind why you don't have to go home for the holidays if your family is toxic and taking a look at some strategies that may alleviate holiday depression and anxiety in general.
"Separating from our families, especially during the holidays, is one of the most painful decisions you can make," Dr. Gary Brown, a licensed marriage and family therapist, tells Bustle. "Be gentle with yourself. If it's that bad, you need to protect yourself."
In an ideal world, home is somewhere we feel loved, nurtured, and safe. But the world is imperfect and even family members who mean well can slide into toxic and abusive behaviors, the chronic persistence of which can make home a deeply unhealthy environment for people to return to — especially people who have escaped to find healthier alternatives elsewhere.
"It is important to remember that you have a choice in where you go and with whom you spend your time," says Amy Sedgwick, director of clinical operation at Mountainside Treatment Center, tells Bustle. "Family gatherings can feel obligatory but the only true obligation you have is to yourself."
Here's why you don't have to give up your hard-earned boundaries, no matter what people say to you.
1. Your Intuition Is Reason Enough
As Sedgwick, a licensed alcohol drug abuse counselor, says "You have the right to say, 'No, but thank you.' If the stress of the event feels overwhelming or if you find yourself battling what-ifs, that is a sign of your discomfort. It is crucial to be in tune with ourselves in order to make the best decisions."
2. Your Family Is Sending You Major Warning Signs
If you aren't sure whether or not your family is really "toxic," there are plenty of potential warning signs to watch out for according to Dr. Brown. They can include:
- living in dread of being with your family
- persistent intrusive thoughts, feelings, and images of traumatic incidents whenever your family gets together
- a history of unpleasant gatherings with your family
- one or more of your family members is an alcoholic and you fear being a target of their rage
- you have nightmares about being with your family, or experience trouble sleeping due to anxiety about going home
- you'd rather be alone or with someone else's family
- you keep on wishing things would be different, but each year, it's the same
- you deny or downplay how bad it is to yourself and others
"In this case, reflect on your family and identify if you are comfortable with how they communicate with each other and with you," Sedgwick says. "Will anyone be at the event that has harmed you in the past? If for any reason during this reflection, you find yourself feeling unsettled, uncomfortable or even unsafe, consider not attending. Your health is far more important that any party."
3. Toxic Family Dynamics Are Abuse & No One Deserves That
No one should be forced to withstand abuse just because "it's Christmas," and abuse is exactly what toxic families traffic in.
"You really shouldn't be in a situation where you are being chronically abused, mistreated, ridiculed, judged, and the blunt of your family's cruelty," Dr. Brown says. "Being insulted and diminished on a routine basis is simply not healthy and your understandable need to avoid your toxic family may very well be the most healing thing you can do for yourself. Do you want to have yet one more batch of painful holiday memories?"
Plus, feeling depressed over the holidays anyway can leave you especially vulnerable to this type of abuse. It's perfectly reasonable to take care of yourself and avoid it.
4. If You Do Decide To Go Home, Give Yourself Support
If you have a friend who staunchly supports you, and around whom you won't feel judged or responsible if they have a bad time with your family, then you might ask them to go home with you.
"By bringing a friend, you will have an ally right beside you to ensure that you are managing the event in a healthy way," Sedgwick says. "At any point, you can look at your friend or even shoot them a text and let them know it is time to leave. This strength in numbers tactic provides comfort."
5. Feelings Of Obligation Aren't A Good Reason To Go Home
Maybe a part of you wants to do your own thing over the holidays but a part of you still feels obligated to go home. If you sense of obligation takes any of the following forms, Dr. Brown says, it's actually a symptom of the problems, rather than a good reason to be around your family:
- you feel fearful that your family will guilt trip you into coming home
- you fear that you will succumb to the guilt
- friends pressure you into going home anyway, even though there is a strong history of abuse
- you feel that you should just "suck it up and take it"
- you feel afraid to go home, but cling to the idea that you should go, and you feel anxious with either decision
- you are so anxious and afraid that you have avoided telling one or more of your family members how you are feeling and what it is like for you to be around them
6. You're In Control
Maybe there's a more boundaried way you can spend time with your family around the holidays without backsliding into an old, abusive dynamic. Start out by telling your family how you feel around them and what your past experiences around them have been if you've never done so before, Dr. Brown says. They may simply not realize how painful it really is for you.
"This may or may not work out but at least you can say that you put it out there," he says.
Also, try limiting your time with them in other ways. "You can attend a gathering, but ...[tell] your loved ones that you can only join for a portion. Perhaps [you can attend] during dinner, but then say you need to leave for another obligation," says Sedgwick. "Putting a boundary around something helps us realize it is time-limited, and that we have control around our time at the event."
7. You Could Be Spending This Time With People Who Actually Love You
Consider that just because you can't be with your biological family over the holidays doesn't mean you're doomed to seasonal loneliness for the rest of your life. Be transparent about your situation with people you love and trust, and work proactively to find supportive alternatives.
"Reach out to friends local to where you live and let them know that you have decided not to spend the holidays with your family," Dr. Brown says. "At the very least, they will hopefully be supportive and may invite you to their home."
It also may be time to think beyond the short-term. "It may be time to consider starting a new extended family of friends that you enjoy being with anytime of the year, not just the holidays," he says. "Resolve that you deserve better than what you are getting in your family of origin."
And remember that you don't have to cut off your whole family to get away from those who cause you pain. Find solace in those who love you well and in your own company.
"Choose to spend time with family members you enjoy being with — but do it apart from the toxic members of your family during the holidays," Dr. Brown says. "Remember, that sometimes it really is better to be alone than subject yourself to being abused."