If only I’d have known these family holiday survival tips years ago. When I remember holidays with my family, I think of stress. The image that comes to mind is everyone else laughing and having a great time, while I was miserable. I don’t remember many holidays as a child, but as an adult, holidays used to be times of emotional abuse from my parents, mostly my dad, and from my ex-husband.
While we were married, the usual pattern for my ex was to work up my emotions right before we arrived at my parents’ house. He’d feign a misunderstanding or falsely accuse me of something or criticize me–whatever would upset me. By the time we arrived, I’d be on the verge of tears or I’d be angry. Then my parents would correct my bad attitude and all three of them would join against me for ruining the special day.
My daughter, Bethany, and I were both the targets of comments about our weight or other parts of our appearance and whatever other “weakness” my dad could find.
In our healing from abuse, Bethany and I have learned a few things about getting through this stressful time of year. Now we know that we deserve to have a nice drama free holiday. We haven’t had a relationship with most of our family members in a few years and we celebrate the holiday differently each year–but each year, we make decisions based on what’s good for us rather than what tradition dictates or what is “expected” of us.
Being a child in a dysfunctional family taught me that I’m responsible for others and that caring for myself is wrong. I had a tendency to take care of other people’s feelings and to neglect my own. When I focus on them, I lose clarity about me.
I used to think people earned certain rights to me if they were “nice”. If they gave me gifts or said kind things to me, I believed that gave them access to me and that I couldn’t say no. But I’ve learned that nobody has the right to buy me or rent me through “loving” things they do. Love that comes with obligation isn’t really love.
I don’t have to label my family as abusive or dysfunctional to justify not spending the holiday with them or to set boundaries with them. I’ve been in many relationships–with family and otherwise–where I didn’t feel comfortable walking away until I could prove they’d done something wrong. Now I know that I don’t have to be with anyone I don’t want to be with. I have permission to decide how to spend my time and who I spend it with. I don’t have to label them as bad to separate from them and being separate doesn’t make me bad.
Bethany and I have taken years to feel comfortable saying no without needing to offer an explanation or excuse. We’ve gotten better at saying yes to ourselves a little at a time. Now we are confident that we are adults and don’t need permission from anyone to chose what’s best for ourselves.
If you do choose to attend your family’s gathering, here are some tips we’ve found helpful:
1. Empower yourself by acknowledging the choices that you have and by deciding on your boundaries beforehand.
“I’ll join them, but I’m only going to stay for two hours.”
“If they start talking about embarrassing things I’ve done, I’m going to leave.”
“I’ll go but if they start getting drunk I’m leaving.”
2. Take an ally with you.
If your family treats you like a child, it’s easy to fall back into that role. Taking a friend can ground you to the present day and remind you that you’re an adult with choices. That may help you resist falling back into patterns of the past. Having an ally may help you feel more confident to walk away from poor treatment or to stand up to it.
Also, some family members may not be as likely to be abusive or disrespectful if you have someone with you who cares about you. They may not want a “witness” or anyone who would confirm how devaluing their treatment is.
3. Have an escape plan.
Make sure you have your own transportation and can leave anytime.
Only ride with someone who is willing to leave with you at any time or else have the number to a taxi service.
4. Know what coping methods to use and what not to use.
If you need to stay away from the adult drama, play with the children or keep busy by helping in the kitchen. Drinking won’t help you to stay empowered and may make you more vulnerable.
Stay present so you can monitor the situation and your feelings and take action if necessary. If you feel the need to drink, let that be an indication that you are feeling stress about something. Do what you need to do to take care of yourself. Do you need to stand up for yourself? Do you need to step outside? Do you need to leave?
5. Plan another place to go in case you do need to leave.
Have a backup plan that’s nurturing. If you go home, have food prepared or at least available. Have a choice of comforting or empowering things to do–like watching movies or something else that you enjoy. Finish a project if you feel up to it or call a friend.
If you’d prefer to be with a friend, let your friend know ahead of time that you may show up at his or her house and that you may not want to talk or you may need to talk things out.
Bethany and I no longer feel victimized by the people who supposedly love us and we choose to spend the holidays in ways that empower us. We wish the same thing for you this year. Whether or not you have a supportive family, we hope you know you’re not alone this holiday season. Your Overcoming Sexual Abuse family is here for you. Happy Holidays!
What is your holiday experience with your family? If you spend the holidays with your family, do you enjoy it or do you feel obligated? Please comment below and remember to subscribe to the comments so you can continue to participate in the discussion. You don’t have to use your real name. Email addresses are never made public.
I’m Christina Enevoldsen and I’m the cofounder of Overcoming Sexual Abuse and the author of The Rescued Soul: The Writing Journey for the Healing of Incest and Family Betrayal. My passion is exploring new ways to express my empowered new life. I’ve recently discovered the joy of waterslides, the delightful scented lotion from Bath & Body Works, “Dark Kiss” and hosting princess tea parties for my granddaughters. My husband and I live in Scottsdale, Arizona and share three children and six grandchildren.
Bethany, along with her mother, Christina Enevoldsen, is the cofounder of Overcoming Sexual Abuse, an online resource for male and female abuse survivors looking for practical answers and tools for healing. Besides helping abuse survivors see the beauty within themselves, she enhances the beauty of others as a professional make-up artist and has worked in television, film and print. She lives in Los Angeles.