December 15, 2020

19 Ways to Survive Christmas with your Dysfunctional Family.

Sit down. Grab a drink, and let’s have a chat.

One thing I do is truth-telling. So—let’s get really honest.

A lot of my clients come from dysfunctional families, and I wish I could tell them that things get better during the holidays. But—they just tend to get worse. Truth. I’ll tell them and I’ll tell you.

Everything just gets bigger and better and that includes all the emotions and stress we feel when we hook up with family, friends, or even work colleagues. I’d love to be your Fairy Godmother, but if every Christmas with your dysfunctional family has been a disaster, chances are it’ll be the same as it has always been.

It’s really unlikely that this will be the Christmas or New Year that everything miraculously gets better. How much I wish I could fix this for you. I can’t—not in one post. But, I can help you out with minimal damage.

Firstly, I will say—don’t feel like you have to spend time with your family members if it doesn’t make you feel good. Having said that, I totally get that it’s hard to say “no.”

So just see how you feel about it and even if you give in and change your mind—know you aren’t weak. Don’t beat yourself up about any decision you make—I kinda know you will, but try hard as heck not to.

Let’s at least get you there and home in one piece.

You might go so you don’t draw attention or rock the boat. This is entirely normal. I’ve done it heaps of times—taken sushi I didn’t want to prepare (yep, sushi at Christmas—don’t ask). I’ve worn stupid family T-shirts and I’ve followed the strangest family traditions.

Pretty much always, some work with a therapist is needed to say “no” anyway. So if you are going—I’ve got some hints in just a sec.

You may have already gone “no contact” with your family or some family members, and my number one tip for you is to write down a list of reasons why you made this choice.

Chances are you’ll naturally feel guilty or you may be made to feel guilty for not going to family events. Guilt is a huge thing in dysfunctional families, and, as I say, “Your parents put the buttons there so they know exactly how to press them.”

If you are feeling guilty during the holidays because you’ve gone no contact, now is a good time to keep your list handy. Keep it on your phone. Keep it by your bed. Burn it into your brain.

You might be made to feel like you’re the crazy one. But, remember that you wrote this list when you weren’t stressed or “crazy,” and that you’re a champion for having the strength to go no contact. You have every right to do what you need to feel okay. Find something else to do to distract yourself and hang in there. This too shall pass. Every year gets much, much easier.

There’s also the possibility that you actually may look forward to seeing your family at the holidays, but every year, find that you come away feeling vaguely disappointed, confused, angry, or guilty. This can happen when you have some symptoms of Childhood Emotional Neglect.

Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) happens when you grow up in a family that does not “see” the emotions of anyone in it. In the CEN family, feelings are treated as if they are irrelevant or even inconvenient or weak. Children in these families learn to ignore and hide their own feelings

CEN literally teaches you to avoid. Avoid feelings, avoid meaningful topics, avoid, avoid, avoid. Then, when you’re done avoiding, avoid some more.

Just say you were to spy on an emotionally neglectful family’s event; you might see lots of things. You might see crazy jokiness, lots of meaningless chatter about events, weather, or other people, or you might see people not communicating at all. Every CEN family finds its own ways to avoid feelings.

Anyone might see what looks like a perfectly normal family having the best holiday. What you don’t see is how everyone in the room is secretly, quietly struggling and looking for the nearest exit.

All of this sounding a lot like your family looks or feels?

Never fear. Beck is here.

Here are some tips to get you through until January:

1. Recognise that you’re probably going to feel a lot of fear, obligation, and guilt.

Feelings don’t have to be acted on. It’ll be uncomfortable as heck, but keep your eye on the prize—getting through the season as best as you possibly can.

2. Keep in mind that it’s not your fault.

You’re not the cause of the lack of emotional connection and validation in your family of origin. It’s not because of you, and it’s not in response to you. It just is.

3. Identify the people in your life who truly know you and truly love you.

These are the people who can provide you with that feeling of warmth that your human brain naturally needs. Spend more time and energy with those people throughout the season. Keep your phone close by so you can text them.

4. Take breaks.

Even at a function. Walk outside. Hide in the toilet—I truly am not joking. Take all the time you need. It doesn’t mean you’re weak, needy, or attention-seeking—which are all words I can guarantee you have heard or will hear. Let them just pass into one ear and out the other. Whoosh.

5. Don’t hold functions in your own home.

And, it’s best if you have your own method of transportation. You need to know you can leave at any time and you need to make a promise to yourself that you’ll leave if the questions or comments or even just the vibe become too much.

This one is a biggie. You need an escape plan. Text your support person that you need to leave and make sure they hang by their phone to be there while you leave. Have them hold you accountable. Escaping Zoom calls is easier—and absolutely fine.

6. You don’t owe anyone anything.

Especially not just because they are family. You don’t owe explanations for your life or lifestyle choices. You don’t owe specific gifts. You don’t owe gratitude to people who have hurt you. You don’t owe an explanation about why you need to leave. You don’t need to explain why you’re quiet. You don’t need to explain your new tattoo. You don’t need to explain why you’re single. You don’t need to explain your weight, friends, or whether or not you have kids.

7. You don’t have to speak to everyone there.

No one is owed a conversation.

8. You don’t have to abide by your childhood rules.

“Just because it’s the way we do it” is bullsh*t crap. You often find people have roles in the family and at family things—you don’t have to play the part they have given you.

9. You don’t owe anyone an explanation for anything.

In fact, the less you explain the cleaner and easier it’ll be to leave. There can’t be a protest or a guilt trip if you don’t offer ammunition.

10. Ideally, it would be great to have one person there with you who understands Childhood Emotional Neglect and knows what you have been through.

A partner, sister, brother, or friend can be an absolute lifesaver. It might just be a look, or you could even have a signal if you need support or want to leave. You don’t have to do this alone.

11. Keep it real. Be gentle with yourself.

Our human brains are naturally wired to expect love and care from our families—but in the emotionally neglectful family, if you let yourself feel those expectations, you can be left feeling twice as empty.

Try to adjust your expectations before you go, so that you’ll be ready. It’s better to be surprised than disappointed.

Write down what people have said or done at other times that have made you uncomfortable. Then when it happens again, you can get the reassurance that it is them and not you.

You expected it. It is a pattern of behaviour and will just happen.

I even play games with my texting support buddy where they have to do something funny every time one of my family members ticks one of the things on my list of predictable behaviour. It was initially that they take a drink—but it ended up with them very drunk, so we had to change it.

12. Be aware of your feelings.

During the day, you may experience a variety of different emotions, like frustration, emptiness, boredom, anger, or disappointment. You might feel left out or embarrassed. Pay attention to these feelings.

After working with a therapist, you can try to accept and name them. Let yourself have them. You’re feeling those emotions for a reason, and you can use them later to help you understand how your family affects you.

13. Overwhelming emotions pass.

When something feels completely overwhelming give it 20 minutes—if it has not gotten any better, then maybe it is time to take yourself out of the situation.

When you were small, you relied on your family for everything. That isn’t the case anymore—so you can be the parent you always needed and take yourself home. Put on some PJs, get comfort food, watch junk TV, phone a friend…you get my drift. Christmas is just a day.

14. Have a list of things you love to do.

Reward yourself constantly during this time. Write down things that soothe you. Those comfy tracksuit pants. Peanut butter straight out of the jar. Music. True Crime. Romance novels. Video games. Working out. Anything. I suggest you write it down because when you are stressed, especially by family , your mind tends to just go blank. Have that list with you. Use it.

15. Run your hands under cold water.

Whenever you feel particularly disconnected or anxious, the cold water can bring you back into your body so that you can find a way to look after yourself.

16. Be glad you’re different.

Often at holidays, we can be teased—in a fun or even a not-so-fun way for being different. The scapegoat. The black sheep. Realise that growing up with Emotional Neglect has made you really strong. As an emotionally neglected person, you have learned to rely on yourself.

On this day, focus on the positives that have come from growing up as you did. Whether you realize it or not, your Childhood Emotional Neglect taught you how to be independent, capable, and giving. These are things to be thankful for. This is just a few days and you are more than this.

17. See your therapist.

I set up exact strategies with my clients and we practise conversations. When you’re stressed, you act on autopilot so thinking things through beforehand can help. Hook up a debriefing appointment with them for after any events if you think you’ll need it.

Get some exercise. Wear clothes you feel comfortable in. Stay only if you’re okay—and not one minute longer. This is a day when it’s extra important to put yourself first.

18. Don’t get angry at yourself for finding it tough or if you need a few days to recover.

Take them. Do it. Imagine if you were actually someone you knew. You would tell them to be gentle. So be gentle.

19. Be yourself.

No matter what has happened. Not matter what other people think. You are enough.

February is coming.


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