Dealing with Family Drama in the Holidays
Kelly Wendorf, MCC
Let’s face it, the holidays can be really intense. December is filled with lots of opportunities to be triggered: Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Ōmisoka, Christmas, Winter Solstice, and New Year’s Eve. Something about the combination of family, obligations, politics, secrets, loyalties, gift buying expense and stress, alcohol, and unresolved tension creates a toxic cocktail for drama. And most of the time we are dealing with folks who don’t know how to relate skillfully or consciously.
The following is a handy first-aid guide (complete with bullet points so you can quickly refer back when your drunk cousin Marvin is making another racist remark) to not only surviving the holidays, but possibly growing, evolving and maturing through them. At the bottom of this article are some great resources to further support you. December is your opportunity to make some powerful changes inside your holiday dynamics, and cultivate more well being for all. This holiday season, rather than spreading gratitude and niceties, I’m going to issue you a challenge: use this time to learn and grow and stretch. Be the most mature person in the room and deal with the drama.
Why are there so many toxic theatrics in our families of origin? It’s helpful to understand why we get so easily activated around Aunt Peg, or Dad, or our mother-in-law, or Granddaddy Joe. Our family of origin is the place where we first learned about relationship. Embedded in our nervous system are all the collective and unresolved shame and trauma handed down the family line. What we do not heal or transform in ourselves remains intact and continues to negatively influence us. We call these historic imperatives. My inclination to please and appease, for example, is a historic imperative, handed down from my mother, handed to her from her mother, and so on. Our historic imperatives are uncomfortable to live inside even when we are aware of them. They are destructive when we are not. When we are with family, they get activated even more. We call this triggering.
When we get triggered, we are stumbling into a place in our psyche––a historic imperative––that is calling to be healed or transformed. And while the person across from the table at the Christmas feast may be your frustratingly exasperating Aunt Peg who is by all accounts annoying, the trigger is yours and it is your opportunity to work with it, with grace, maturity, candor and skillfulness.
We do not have to have been exposed to extreme abuse or addiction to experience the impact of historic imperatives. We can come from a fairly healthy family environment and still carry the unresolved issues of a family system. I was not so lucky. My narcissistic father was married four times, my mother three. My step fathers were alcoholics. There was abuse. There was domestic violence. I have half-siblings and step-siblings. I have ex-step-siblings and ex-step-grandparents. I’ve lived through my share of holiday hell, and come out the other side with some tools.
I’ve come to truly love and appreciate my family. But it’s not a Rockwell vision of familial ease; more a Picasso (Cubist period – think Les Demoiselles d’Avignon) impression of jagged distinctions. It’s been a long hard road to find my own way within that maize of complexity, conflict and dysfunction to a place of grace, maturity, clear boundaries, and knowing myself. And my mom, by the way, is truly one of the most awesome humans alive.
Let’s take the high-level context first (meaning, your own inner workings around the family dynamics). And then later in this article we can work on how to handle everyone else. The big question here is, what’s your role in this family? Are you the rescuer, the peacemaker, the provocateur, the skulking distancer, or the golden child? Take a moment to see what your role is. Now, explore for yourself what is benefit to maintaining that role? There would be some benefit, otherwise you wouldn’t continue it. And now, check out what it is costing to you? Does the cost outweigh the benefit? If so, time to end that role. Redefining yourself within the family system is a huge first step in making a change, and making the holidays more bearable (and even interesting).
Get curious about what is triggering you inside the family scenarios. The key is not about ‘not getting triggered’ but learning and growing from them. Triggered because your mother-in-law invited additional guests without your permission at your Hanukkah open house? Perhaps your trigger is telling you that it’s time to stop being the ‘good girl’ and set some clear boundaries with that woman. Activated because your little brother gets all the attention for being special? Maybe it’s time to start that new company, and quit your cube job. Seething because your sister never comes to your holiday festivities? Perhaps it’s time to invest less in her, and more in your new dream to create a podcast. Get in the driver’s seat of your reactivity and learn from it.
Another piece of high-level work is around making peace with your parents. In therapy we sometimes unearth a lot of uncomfortable things about our past. It can be useful to discover the reasons why we do the things we do––what’s underneath that need to control, or that compulsion to bolt from a healthy relationship. But don’t let the work leave you in a state of resentment and anger. Think of your parents more like ‘Jan’ and ‘Bob’ rather than ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad’…just two humans trying to muddle through the best way they can. Let them be imperfect. And learn what you need to do to take care of yourself around them.
And the last bit of high-level work is to stop trying to change anyone in your family. They aren’t going to change. Period. End of sentence.
OK, now that you’ve got some good high-level inner tools, let’s look at what to do with the family. Being the most mature person in the room means you implement strategies that help you to take care of you in the midst of the chaos. It might mean you are the one who sets the most boundaries and walks away. It might mean that you stop playing by all those crazy rules that the family upholds. What are your rules you want to play by?
Here are some pointers to get you started:
Recognize dysfunction – I find with my clients that identifying dysfunction is a first and important step. Often it is too close for them to see it, or it is so close to their family of origin dynamic that it just feels normal. The list is endless but here are a few examples: guilt trips; getting drunk; gossiping; sexual or racial slurs; homophobic remarks, inappropriate comments about your dress, hair or body; arriving chronically late; imposing arrangements when it is not your house (more guests, dinners, traditions); rigid rules; bad behavior; put down’s; triangulating; baiting; excessive criticism. There are a lot more of course, but you get the idea. Basically, if it feels bad, it is likely dysfunctional.
Boundaries – good clear, firm, non-negotiable boundaries. Set them with grace and care. When you first set a boundary there will probably be friction. But over time (it may even be years), it will ease and in its place, you’ll have a much healthier relationship. An example of a boundary? Let’s say your mother wants Winter Solstice to always happen at her house. But this costs you lots of money to fly to Canada every year, and you want to have your own traditions. She plays the guilt card. You tell her that you’ll celebrate another holiday with her, but Winter Solstice for the time being will be at your house. Here’s another example of a boundary. Let’s say that your brother gets really drunk during the Christmas party and starts verbally abusing your sister. Stop him, remove him, get him an Uber home and the next morning tell him he will not be back if he behaves that way again (and mean it).
Boundaries can also be light and fluid – especially around those relatives who you rarely see. If Aunt Martha asks you why you aren’t married yet, or how much money you make, you can deflect her with a joke, and not answer the question. Women especially are taught to be good girls, to be kind, to care and accommodate. You don’t need to answer the question. You can mirror. Or take your power back by putting the attention back on the other person.
Model – be the person you would like everyone else to be too. Model what mature adult behavior looks like, even if you are the youngest one in the room. Refrain from gossiping, triangulating, debating, over-drinking or other behaviors that are annoying or unconscious.
Save your energy – give yourself permission to (gracefully) end or walk away from every conversation that feels toxic or unpleasant. Give your energy to people and situations that feel good. Perhaps your eight-year-old nephew is the most interesting one in the room. Or peeling potatoes with Uncle Jake feels better than sitting down with everyone else.
No contact – this is an option. Some family members are so dysfunctional that the only way to deal with them is not to deal with them. There was a time in my life when I went ‘no contact’(NC) with my father. It was an important time in our relationship. Going NC doesn’t have to be done in anger or aggressiveness. If you need to take a break from a family member or your entire family, this is ok. You can tell them, “It’s not healthy for me (or my children) to come home and fight, and be around drunkenness. I love you but it’s not healthy for me.”
Power poses – body language not only sends a message to others, it shapes your own brain towards that posture’s emotional state. Want to feel confident? Sit erect, and use firm and clear eye contact. Keep both feet on the floor. Walk past the drunk relative, shoulders back and chin up. You don’t owe him your politeness.
Don’t take the bait – don’t engage in the dance(s) that others want with you. Watch for questions or comments that are designed to hook you, set you off, push you off balance. Walk away. Change the subject. Look them in the eye and pause, and smile in that way that tells them you are on to them. Don’t debate, argue, or convince.
Couple bubble – Have your partner’s back at all times. In healthy couple relationships, the couple is primary, and everyone else (mother, father, in-laws, children, brothers, sisters, friends) are secondary. Couples expert Dr. Stan Tatkin calls this a Couple Bubble. Often the mother of a wife / husband / partner will wedge her way between the pair, and make decisions with their adult child, leaving the partner out of the equation. This is highly manipulative and erodes the strength and resilience of the couple. It is up to the adult child to tell the mother, “From now on my wife / husband / partner is primary, and we make all our decisions together, and will inform you of what we decide.”
Don’t triangulate – speak to the person you have the issue with, don’t speak to someone else about that issue.
Take it deeper – for those in your family with whom you have a healthy scene, spend more time with them. Perhaps there is a niece who would love to check out your closet, and talk fashion trends, or a Great Uncle who would love to tell you stories about his childhood in France and your family background.
This holiday season, give yourself the gift of clarity, candor, boundaries and ease. Be the gift your family needs by your clear presence, and by modeling a new way to be together.
You got this.
Wired for Love by Stan Tatkin
We Do by Stan Tatkin
EQUUS Article: How to Have Less Drama in Your Relationships
Out of the FOG – Even though this is a website for family members of people suffering from personality disorders, it’s also enormously helpful for those dealing with bad behaviors in normal people!
Stop Walking on Eggshells: Taking Your Life Back When Someone You Care About Has Borderline Personality Disorder by Paul Mason MS and Randi Kreger – Even though this is a book for family members of people suffering from a personality disorder, it’s also enormously helpful for those dealing with bad behaviors in normal people!