Dysfunctional Family Holiday Survival TipsNov 20th, 2012 | By osa | Category: All Posts, Articles
by Christina Enevoldsen with Bethany Ruck
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 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 the need 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 chose 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 and do what you need to do to take care of yourself.
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. Have a choice of comforting or empowering things to do–like watching movies or something else that you enjoy doing. 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.
I haven’t been around my family in years, but when I spoke to my father a few months ago, it stirred up a lot of emotions. First, I felt exhilarated for standing up to him. I was so proud of myself and I was on a high for a few days. Then, I reached a new level of truth and grief came with it. I realized in a deeper way that my dad would never love me or be the father that I wanted.
The encounter with my dad was on my terms and it was helpful to my healing, but it still left me exhausted. During that time, I took special care of myself. I reached out to supportive people and was more gentle with myself than usual. I ate healthy food and got a lot of rest. I never know what feelings will come up when I have contact with my “family”. Sometimes, I don’t feel much of anything and sometimes hearing from one of them stirs up a plethora of emotions. Often, I have a delayed reaction. Whatever my response, I’m careful to give myself the love that I never got from them.
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 always here for you. Happy Holidays!
In the spirit of the holidays, would you consider helping us meet our expenses? We need to cover our budget by the end of the year and we need your help. No matter the size of your tax-deductable donation, we very much appreciate it. The donate button is on the top right of this page and it’s fast and easy to use. Thank you!
Now that you’ve heard our experiences and thoughts about this, we’d love to hear yours. Please comment below and don’t forget to subscribe to the comments so you can continue to participate in the ongoing discussion. If you would like to protect your privacy, you don’t have to use your real name. Email addresses are never made public.
Pain Surrounding the Holiday
I’m Re-gifting Christmas
Grieving & Celebrating Father’s Day
Unfriending My Abuser
What If My Family Rejects Me? Part III
Profile of an Abusive Family
My Parents Are Dead (To Me)
Christina Enevoldsen is cofounder of Overcoming Sexual Abuse, an online resource for male and female abuse survivors looking for practical answers and tools for healing. Christina’s passions are writing and speaking about her own journey of healing from abuse and inspiring people toward wholeness. She and her husband live in Los Angeles and share three children and five grandchildren.
Bethany Ruck is 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 hair stylist and works in television, film and print.