Tips on Getting Through Holiday Family Gatherings with Troubled or Dysfunctional Family Members

Photo by Todd Trapani on Unsplash

The holidays are here, and for many, that means braving the mind, heart, and spirit to withstand encounters with challenging family members. As the holidays is often associated with family time, its important to note that its ok if you don’t have one of those families that seem ideal to be in the same space with. Families are made of people, and people have problems. People have hurts, blind-spots, wounds, anger, shame, and insecurities that they carry with them everywhere, and what better time for someone to release their unhinged troubles, than with family?

Many families have those members that just cant hold their opinions and judgement to themselves. There’s those family members who have poor boundaries, and are inappropriately intrusive, asking questions and probing for answers that aren’t their business to hold. There are the family members that tend to start problems. Then, there just might be someone you’re very close to, that tends to easily trigger the more unpleasant emotions within you.

For all these reasons, its important to mentally and emotionally prepare yourself to enter any of these spaces. There are ways to mindfully and intentionally engage with others. One of the key components to maneuvering interactions with others is being self aware of your boundaries, as well as those of others. Many conflicts are rooted in not being in tuned to boundaries. Either over stepping or not respecting another’s boundaries, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

Let’s chat about boundaries. There are various types of boundaries important to keep in mind when it comes to relationships and interaction.

Physical boundaries refer to personal space and physical touch. Healthy physical boundaries include an awareness of what’s appropriate, and what’s not, in various settings and types of relationships (hug, shake hands, or kiss). Physical boundaries may be violated if someone touches you when you don’t want them to, or when they invade your personal space (for example, going through your bedroom or office).

Intellectual boundaries refer to thoughts and ideas. Healthy intellectual boundaries include respect for others’ ideas, and an awareness of appropriate discussion (should we talk about the weather, or politics). Intellectual boundaries are violated when someone dismisses or belittles another person’s thoughts or ideas.

Emotional boundaries refer to a person’s feelings. Healthy emotional boundaries include limitations on when to share, and when not to share, personal information. For example, gradually sharing personal information during the development of a relationship, as opposed to revealing everything to everyone. Emotional boundaries are violated when someone criticizes, belittles, or invalidates another person’s feelings.

Material boundaries refer to money and possessions. Healthy material boundaries involve setting limits on what you will share, and with whom. For example, it may be appropriate to lend a car to a family member, but probably not to someone you met this morning. Material boundaries are violated when someone steals or damages another person’s possessions, or when they pressure them to give or lend them their possessions.

Time boundaries refer to how a person uses their time. To have healthy time boundaries, a person must set aside enough time for each facet of their life such as work, relationships, and hobbies. Time boundaries are violated when another person demands too much of another’s time.

You can’t control someone honoring your boundaries, however you can be aware of what boundaries matter to you, work on asserting them, and learning to care of yourself so that if they are crossed, you can stay ground and at peace.

In preparation for the spaces you may enter this week, and this holiday season, here are some questions to reflect or journal on:

Why are you going to the gathering? What does it represent? What value does it add to your life?

Are you mentally and emotionally ready to enter this space? Is it healthy enough for you to enjoy yourself? Is there more pleasure than anxiety, or more anxiety and dread than pleasure, when you thing about going?

What are some emotional needs you may have in order to feel safe and grounded during family gatherings?

Are there any lingering conflicts with family members you may see in the space? What about the conflict has impacted you? What emotions are you feeling and why? Should the conflict never get settled, what is something you have learned about yourself, the other person, and the power of acceptance?

What are some boundaries you can express to family if need be?

What are some boundaries you can set for yourself to feel safe and grounded?

What are topics you don’t want to explore or feel would be too heavy, emotional, personal, etc. to discuss?

Who is an emotionally safe family member to be around? Why are they safe? Why are you grateful for them?

What are 3–5 grounding statements you can offer yourself should any emotional wounds get activated?

Tips and reminders for being with family-

  • You CHOOSE what you share and with whom.
  • Use your breathe when you’re overwhelmed. Take time to be still and practice mindful breathing, or step away in a room. Inhale deeply for 5 seconds through your nose, and exhale slowly for 5 seconds out your mouth. Repeat 3–5 times.
  • Every comment from a problem starter does not need a defense or response.
  • It’s ok to keep physical distance in the same space.
  • Try to focus on a strength of the problem starter or something positive they have brought to your life (remember duality).
  • You can leave at any time.
Tiffany Wright, MSW

Written by

Mental Health Practioner &Advocate, Self Love Ambassador & Wanderluster. Co-Founder of www.cococoalition.org. Info at www.tiffanywrightmsw.com

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