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Handling the holidays with a dysfunctional family

by Raechel Pierce | November 2021

This is the time of year where people are planning to take trips back home, share meals, warm moments, and create lasting memories. That sounds ideal, but you may be feeling more dread than anticipation about gathering with your family. There is a lot of pressure to make sure things run smoothly, but old patterns and habits don’t go away overnight. Perhaps you don’t have the best relationship with your siblings or there’s bound to be conflict that never seems to get resolved. It can feel isolating to see others look forward to their family gatherings, while you’re feeling anxious about navigating dysfunctional family dynamics— but you’re not alone. 

Good news is, there are ways to approach family gatherings that can help alleviate those feelings, with the potential to actually enjoy yourself.

Plan ahead: Think ahead of time how you might handle uncomfortable moments as they arise. That may mean practicing emotional check-ins with yourself and taking a moment to breathe, or stepping outside to clear your mind. Likewise, having a mantra that brings a sense of peace can help you remain grounded and in control of your emotions. Preparation makes all the difference in navigating difficult spaces.

Know your boundaries: What you are not okay with may not come to mind until you encounter the situation, but the last place where you would want to discover your boundaries is in the middle of family dinner. Is there a limit to what you would want to share about your life with relatives? Would staying for four hours feel overwhelming, while two would seem more tolerable? Getting clear about what makes you comfortable and acting on it allows you to not only have a sense of control, but model appropriate boundaries for yourself and others to follow.

Remember what is in your control: No, you can’t control what your family members say or do, or anyone else for that matter, but what you can control are your thoughts and how you respond in the moment. Use the occasion to try a different approach. If you feel thrown off by a remark, practice not taking it personal. It’s not always easy to depersonalize the words or actions of others, but remind yourself that the issues they struggle with are more about them than it is about you. Find moments to give yourself and those around you compassion— it can be a stressful time for everyone. Remind yourself that you don’t have to get caught in old cycles if you want to have a different experience.

Tap into your support system: It’s easy to get wrapped into family dynamics and forget that there are people in your life to help you get through the tough moments. Have a friend you can meet up with while back home visiting family, or someone who knows what you’re facing that you can text or call to share some laughs when some relief is needed. 

Look for positive moments: When you look for things, you often find them. Challenge yourself to find the light hearted, fun moments amongst the chaos. Try directing your attention to things you appreciate about different family members. When we deliberately choose to see the positive aspects in others, or the experience we’re having, it’s much easier to have meaningful interactions and a balanced perspective.

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