Surviving your Dysfunctional Family Christmas

Do you have a family visit planned? Is your stomach tightening at the thought?  Here’s some survival tips that can help.

      1. Keep your expectations minimal – Have you been doing healing work, making great discoveries and gaining new awareness about new and better ways of communicating and dealing with your own and others’ emotions? If so, when you plan your family holidays, you might be hoping that you will suddenly feel warm, safe, and cozy in their presence…what you always wanted as a child, but could never get. However, unless everyone in your family shares your enthusiasm for healing, honest self-reflection, and exploring new patterns of communications, it is very unlikely that anything beyond your own awareness will have changed. And they may never change. But that doesn’t keep you from healing. Seek to gently manage your own inner experience. A great spiritual text (The Third Chinese Patriarch) begins, “The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences.” Let go of expectations and you’ll be more likely to maintain your balance.
      2. Set up support beforehand – Do you have a trusted friend in recovery, a mentor, therapist, or perhaps a 12-Step sponsor?  Set up an understanding beforehand so you can call them when you need a break from your family or are emotionally triggered.  Have their cellphone numbers in your purse or wallet and an understanding of when it is or is not ok to call them. A few words of support from an understanding person can be very calming.
      3. Create new options – A dysfunctional family visit, especially over the holidays, can be like a pressure cooker. You need an escape valve so you don’t “blow”. Have these options planned and set up ahead of time. Consider a long walk alone, a quiet sit in a nearby natural area, a drive to see an old friend, having coffee by yourself in a cafe, taking a nap in a private room, taking a timeout to read a favorite book. Each of these may be a new behavior for you in the family context and, as such, may help you “return to yourself” and remember who you are, that is, something besides feeling like you are 5-10 years old again.
      4. Avoid politics (especially this year) – Don’t touch it! It won’t be satisfying. Just walk away. No one is going to change their opinion or party through arguing over the Christmas ham.
      5. Boundaries are for you – With someone we trust and who respects and loves us, setting a boundary might be asking them to do or not do something. However, in dysfunctional families, trying to get others to change so that we can feel better will just be adding fuel to the fire of dysfunction. The boundaries you’ll need to set in that case are strictly private and internal. For example, you might decide that, “if Dad drinks too much and starts yelling, I will politely leave the room,” or “if I get triggered into anger, I’ll use one of the options in paragraph 3”, or, “if I am tempted to drink (or violate another commitment I’ve made to myself), I will call up my support person”. Best to have these boundaries set up ahead of time and written down. Under pressure, you probably won’t be clear and creative enough to come up with such ideas.
      6. Extra-good self-care – Do the best you can to maintain whatever healthy behaviors you’ve discovered which help you stay centered.  These may include diet, exercise, meditation, journaling, self-talk, prayer, or reading healthy literature. I’m not suggesting starting new things during the family visit. Just try to not let the distractions of the visit keep you from disciplines that have been helping you.
      7. Avoid your addictions – Using any of your “favorite” addictive substances or processes, such as drinking or eating too much, will generally not end well. It’s understandable. The triggers are there and you’d like relief from feeling anxious. But the very short-term relief from getting tipsy or eating the quart of ice cream will soon leave you feeling irritable, ungrounded, and even more likely to do or say something regrettable.
      8. Enjoy the research project – As long as you are not anxious or shutdown, being with your family of origin can be an amazing opportunity to learn about yourself and the environment in which many of your unconscious habits of feeling and thinking formed. With your growing life perspective, you can curiously observe things more objectively about your own and your families’ behavior.  You may gain important insights about why you act and feel the way you do in certain situations. Keep your journal handy to write down things you notice and share them later with trusted support people.
      9. Patience and Self-kindness – You won’t do this perfectly and, fortunately, you don’t need to. Growing into new and healthier relationships with family members takes years. Acknowledge yourself with one of your support people for the small gains. Did you manage to follow even just 1-2 of the tips above? Great! Give yourself an earnest pat on the back. Returning home to a dysfunctional family brings up the deepest of our wounds with all its attendant fear, grief, and anger. Love yourself through those difficult feelings and you can call the visit a resounding success!

Do you have private questions about the body-mind connection or about recovering from trauma, loss, or abuse? Click here to leave me a private message.

Paul Chubbuck is a practicing psychotherapist in Fort Collins, CO, using Somatic Experiencing® to help people release trauma, abuse, and loss. He may be reached at 970-493-2958 or through his website at

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