How to Stop Toxic Family Drama from Being Your Holiday Tradition
Your holidays CAN be full of joy and peace, instead of fuming family feuds and painful drama. All it takes is a little preparation.
In their “Life Gets Better Now” podcast, Mary Hayes Grieco and Erin Warhol discuss ways to rise and thrive, and enjoy life — no matter what the challenge.
Here, Mary and Erin explore the power of choosing to forgive a family member or a family situation, before the next time you are with them, so you can smile through the holidays.
Erin: Mary, I hate to say it, but many people dread the holidays. They dread them because they know that no matter how hard they try to be in good cheer at a family gathering, inevitably they are going to experience the same old crap: bad feelings from past memories with difficult people, that might even turn into new toxic drama — this negativity and discomfort seems to show up like a twisted holiday tradition. Is there anything we can do?
Mary: Yes, there is!
The people that we come from, our so-called “family of origin,” are the people that we sometimes see as a group only at the holidays. To our dismay, we realize anew each year that some of them can be very difficult for us to relate to, and somehow, they bring out the worst parts of us. We’d like to avoid them, but these people are ours for a lifetime — they are our teachers in a spiritual class room.
You might have fallen in love with somebody wonderful and amazing and compatible, but they have parents and siblings that are now your in-laws and some of those people are NOT your favorite peeps, and you don’t care to see them very often. Or you have a tense relationship with one of your siblings, for decades, and you’d rather just avoid them completely. Yet somehow these family relationships are really important, long term, and if we don’t want to suffer at family gatherings, it is very important that we apply seasonal doses of forgiveness, so that we can appreciate being there despite our differences. Unconditional love and forgiveness are like the WD40 of family life, the smooth lubricant which aids a system where dynamics can become jammed, stuck, negative, and even get broken.
Erin: Why is it that even if you are a full-grown adult, with a job and family of your own, you can still go home for Christmas and suddenly find yourself feeling and behaving like a resentful 13-year old girl, angry and bitter. How does that even happen?
Mary: We have history with these folks, and often unresolved issues and unhappy stories where we felt hurt or affronted, but we never worked anything out and resolved it. Some of these stories we remember with a lot of sting, but some of them, especially with siblings, are like a dirty sediment in the bottom of our minds from many, many, small injustices that occurred in daily life as we grew up together. We don’t even consciously remember a lot of what happened, but we are still subconsciously reacting to some old things.
Erin: Let’s drill down into this, because untended, this can all become a toxic brew. Someone says something or makes a face, or gives you look and it triggers something. Then you erupt, fuming. Or maybe you just shut down and stop talking. Or maybe suddenly you are gobbling up sweets or slugging down wine: just doing whatever you can to numb the pain, and keep it at bay. But, Mary…. you are saying, there is another way?
Mary: Every now and then we just have to “clean house” — freely vent out of our system the feelings that are stored there, and apply some spiritual tools to help ourselves shift to a calm and neutral new attitude. This is why people have family fights at holidays when they all get together: all of these dynamics are in the room and nobody has cleaned house over the years, and a lot of dirt and old junk has built up. These things are trying to come up and out for venting and eventual resolution, but it’s not really the time for it then. So, there are fights and stomping out of the room and venting to yourself or muttering to each other in corners about someone else and that sort of thing
Most of us don’t really know how to keep a clean house, in terms of our important relationships and that is why we dread getting together with people we have some backlog with. But what if we used the holiday time as a time in which to release old issues and re-set with someone, operating on a new base of accepting them and trying to see the good in them? Forgiving a difficult family member is our most important life classroom. And wonderfully, it only takes one person to do the work of forgiveness and create a new tone and new energy for this relationship to start getting better and find a new pathway. If only one person seriously releases the issues, it is possible for both of you to have a breakthrough. (Because forgiveness is a private healing experience, and you don’t have to try and get the other person on board with reconciliation. It’s a new way of thinking of forgiveness that is a highly effective way — very do-able.)
When you take some time to do that gritty emotional work of real forgiveness, and have that breakthrough for yourself, very often the other person mysteriously shifts something in the dance between you, too. You will feel so proud of both of you, because you have gone beyond some differences to experience and share some unconditional love and actually create some new peace on this Earth. I have known this experience a few times, with family members, and it is really worth the effort. The holidays are coming — Let’s do some “preemptive forgiveness!”
Erin: What exactly do you mean by “preemptive forgiveness”?
Mary: It’s like a “pre-emptive strike” in war time — taking out something before it becomes a problem and attacks you — only this is for genuine peacemaking. You already have enough intelligence and information from past years to know that there is a very good chance that this person is going to act in the way that irritates you and drives you crazy eventually. You already know some of the things they are likely to say and do, and you are already tense about it and dreading being in the room together. So, if you know how to forgive and clear your heart and mind with the Eight Steps of Forgiveness, you can do it in the run-up time, before the family holiday get-togethers, and enter into the scene with a whole new attitude. The person you dislike will still be there, but you’ll be all mellow about the things you dislike, and you don’t need to get triggered by their behaviors. They’ll feel more comfortable around you, too.
Erin: What do people experience when they’ve done preemptive forgiving?
Mary: When we take an hour, and do a private session of forgiveness, we give ourselves the true pleasure of an unrestrained VENTING that doesn’t hurt anyone. In a private space, we can pretend the annoying person is sitting across from us in an empty chair, and we can lean in and let them have it! For example, you can pretend you’re getting right up in their face and yell, You know, I really hate you, George! You are such a self-centered bigot! I wish you’d shut up once and for all with your racist opinions. Why don’t you just shut up?! I wish I never had to see you again … You can unload your anger and disgust from a number of past incidents, and after you’ve finished processing them with the Eight Steps, you’ll be able to see George with fresh eyes, and find the good in him, and have a chance of some new accord with him, even though you are different and you disagree with his values.
Erin: What are some suggestions for people to do ahead of time in order to have more enjoyable peaceful experiences around the holidays?
Mary: First and foremost, you need to remember that “it’s your holiday — you are not its person.” You can be the boss of some of this, and choose to do one thing that is especially fun or meaningful for you — then you won’t resent the things that you are doing for others. For instance, I take a long day of rest and meditation on winter solstice, enjoying the deep quiet of mid-winter, before all the Christmas busy-ness. Secondly, you need to give yourself permission to subtract something that you don’t particularly like doing. Thirdly, get ready for a nice family gathering by “cleaning house,” forgiving the person or two that bug you at the dinner table. This will get you ready to enjoy this scene as it is, and these people as they are. Last, but most important, be determined to see the good in everyone, and remain present to that goodness. That is the simplest and most transformative act of unconditional love, and ultimately, that’s what the winter holidays are really all about — peace on Earth, and good will towards everyone.
Mary Hayes Grieco is the author of “Unconditional Forgiveness: A Simple and Proven Method to Forgive Everyone and Everything,” and “The New Kitchen Mystic: A Companion for Spiritual Explorers.”
For more specific examples of “preemptive forgiveness” as well as tools and strategies for creating joyful holidays, listen to our “Life Gets Better Now” podcasts.