The movies would have us think the holidays are always full of cheer, good food and close family. But the reality is that family isn’t a safe haven for everyone. Many of us spend our holidays with people who can be cruel, aggressive and downright toxic. Short of abandoning our holiday traditions altogether, how exactly can we deal with the toxic family members we’re doomed to see at gatherings?
I brought the question to Blair Glaser, psychotherapist and relationship coach, who knew exactly the kinds of people I was talking about. “There are the holiday version of ‘bridezillas’ — people’s whose toxicity gets exacerbated during the holidays for whatever reason,” she said, and there are family members “who are toxic no matter what holiday you put them in.”
Glaser said that the reason for toxic behavior is layered and hard to put a fine point on, but you can usually tell if a person is toxic if they seem to thrive on other people’s discomfort. “Toxicity feeds on pain and chaos,” she said. Learning to push back against bad behavior isn’t so easy, either, and one shouldn’t expect to master it on your first try. “It’s an iterative process,” she told me. “It’s not easy, especially for someone who needs practice saying, ‘that’s not OK.’”
Still, here are a few ways you can handle toxic family interactions over the holidays and preserve a little bit of your own peace.
1. Find your reasons for going
If you’re there, there’s likely a reason you want to be, Glaser says. “The balance is in finding the fact that participating in the obligation serves you. It may serve you by touching base with your family. It may serve you by allowing your kids to have contact with your family. It may serve you by even seeing how much you’ve grown since last year.” So figure out why it is that you go and hold onto those while you’re there.
2. Find your way to connect to the love
Especially in the case of family members who get especially toxic around the holidays, even if they’re usually lovely at other times of the year, try connecting to what you love about the person and remember they very likely love you. You might even lightly poke fun at the behavior, but Glaser recommends you use caution. “The use of humor of those situations is sophisticated — you have to know the person well and know what will soften them and what topics you just don’t go near.”
3. Picture a version of yourself who isn’t bothered by criticism
Glaser means this quite literally. Before you arrive for the holidays, visualize a version of yourself who doesn’t let nasty, toxic comments dig at them. “That’s a way to start to strengthen yourself and start to prepare yourself to become that person,” she said.
4. Start to set boundaries
“There’s the ‘keep the peace’ approach and the ‘be direct’ approach,” she told me, and which method you choose really depends on where you are in the process and what your goals are. If you’ve never set boundaries and pushed back against the toxic behavior before, it might be empowering to try it. But she says there’s nothing wrong with “swallowing” the comments temporarily in order to keep the peace and avoid unnecessary short-term conflict.
5. Limit your time
“The more time you spend with your family, the more time the dynamic has to descend and the more available you get toward those old roles and jabs and passive-aggressive remarks,” Glaser said. Limit your time by having somewhere specific to be afterward, like a friend’s party or your spouse’s family. “The first year that you do that, you have to be prepared to ruffle some feathers,” she admitted, but after the first year, the expectation has been set and you’ll have more flexibility in the years that follow.
6. Make time to detox
Once you’ve removed yourself from the toxic situation, you absolutely must make time to detox. Chat with a friend or go for a walk, any kind of ritual that will help you let go of the toxic energy. “Get the poison out,” Glaser said. “If you’re going to choose to hold your tongue for the sake of the peace, make sure you have some kind of ritual at the end.”
Ultimately, she said, “you get to dictate how you want the holiday season to go.” If you’re having an awful time around the holidays, work on taking your power back and figuring out what you want out of the season. Then get to work deciding how to make that happen.