As more people get vaccinated for Covid-19, family gatherings are once again possible. It is common to have high expectations when thinking of reuniting with family you haven’t seen for a long time. Alternatively, you might fear that your worst expectations will be realized if you get together with nuclear and/or extended family members for a holiday or post-vaccination family celebration.
If you grew up in a dysfunctional or abusive home environment, family gatherings can take you beyond ordinary stress and quickly put you in the ‘danger’ or ‘crisis’ zone, depending on how toxic your current family system dynamics are.
Just the thought of facing all of these different personalities and psychic forces mashed up together in one place can be draining and overwhelming. It is small wonder that adult survivors of dysfunctional families often cannot wait for an important family event or holiday to be over.
It can be especially stressful to participate in a family get-together when you have had acutely difficult experiences with one or more family members – including during your childhood. Pleasant childhood memories may be ones you hope to somehow duplicate, while painful memories may be genuinely traumatic.
Perhaps you have chosen to go ‘no contact’ with one or more family members, or are trying to navigate the challenges encountered when attempting to have ‘light contact’ with those who have maltreated you or behaved abusively toward you in the past. Such complex dynamics can make even the thought of engaging with certain family members fraught with difficult decisions and choices, and you may feel highly anxious, depressed, or emotionally dysregulated due to being ‘triggered’ by the thought of engaging with family.
Specifically: You may have family members that you feel intensely triggered by and who you find it nearly impossible to be around, and yet you’re expected to ‘suit up and show up’ for some sort of festive family event – an event you actually find yourself dreading.
Or perhaps you have children / adult children who have relationships with family members who have a history of mistreating or abusing you (such as their grandparents, aunts, or uncles). Explaining to your children why you choose not to attend a family function can be fraught with difficulties and challenges (a topic I will address at length in an upcoming article).
Such scenarios can be especially problematic for adult survivors suffering from Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder due to chronic childhood family dysfunction and abuse, as well as for survivors of what I named family scapegoating abuse, or FSA.
As families reunite following Covid-19 vaccination, it’s critical to remember that your family dynamics likely have not changed, nor the way specific family members behave or the manner in which they treat you. The one thing you do have control over is your own choices, behaviors, and responses. Below are my ten strategies for navigating family gatherings if you choose to spend time with people who have maltreated you in the past (#10 specifically addresses those who are not in contact with family at this time):
1. Ride the Tiger (but know when to get off)
Engaging with your dysfunctional family system can be a bit like riding a multi-headed beast. Some toxic patterns of behavior have likely been occurring in your family for generations. Suffice it to say that there are tremendous psychic forces at play, and so in some ways, you are “walking where angels fear to tread” when engaging with your family-of-origin.
Remember that you can only control what is in your power to control: Your own behavior and responses. Use any family-focused experiences you choose to have as a means of becoming an even stronger person. If, for example, you are chronically in the ‘family scapegoat’ role, stand strong in your center and don’t give your power away when others attempt to distort the truth of who you are or your character.
Hold yourself in a state of self-compassion and never forget who you are and what you stand on (and for) as you navigate what is likely a very complicated family landscape. When you stand in your truth and your power and don’t play the ‘dysfunctional family game’ you can remain relatively unaffected by the energetic swords others wield against you via their hurtful statements and behaviors.
Remember, when you greet dysfunction with healthy functioning you are succeeding in not placing your well-being into someone else’s hands. And that is a true victory, and something to celebrate when engaging with your dysfunctional family-of-origin.
2. Plan for the Typical and Expected
You likely already know what might trigger you or set you off at a family event (e.g., “Are you really going to have seconds? Aren’t you worried about your weight?”) Know what your limits are and do what you can to structure the time with your dysfunctional family in advance. For example, know your arrival time and know what time it might be best for you to leave (if you are in ‘light contact’ with family, two or three hours should suffice).
Consider renting a car if you are flying in so you have the freedom to come and go. And do not stay with your family if you know that you cannot be around them for long – Arrange to stay at a hotel or a short-term vacation rental, (e.g., VRBO or Airbnb) instead.
Planning out your coping and “exit strategies” ahead of time – before the family gathering – is something that you can work out with your therapist, coach, partner, or friend long before the family event arrives. Be sure you have some “go-to” self-care strategies in place before you go. For example, some of my Psychotherapy and FSA Coaching clients arrange to meet family in a public place, like a restaurant, as it does not feel safe for them emotionally to go to the dysfunctional family members’ home, so this is something else you might try.
3. Accept How People Are (and don’t expect them to change)
If a family member has behaved in a disrespectful or even abusive manner toward you in the past, don’t expect this behavior to change just because it is a celebratory event. Family tensions can actually increase during special events, causing people to behave in unexpected (and sometimes harmful) ways. For example, if someone drinks too much and becomes verbally aggressive or even violent, this won’t change just because it is supposed to be a ‘happy’ occasion or time of year.
Don’t expect people to be any different from who they have been, as they are unlikely to act any differently this year than they have in the past. Letting go of fantasies that “this time will be different” will help to protect you from further disappointment. If things go better than anticipated, enjoy it, but don’t count on it being this way in the future.
4. Avoid Deep, Emotional Conversations (and be careful about using alcohol / substances to cope!)
Gatherings involving your dysfunctional family are not conducive to repairing past childhood wounds or hurts. The best thing to do when you are interacting with various family members is to keep the conversation simple (think ‘light and polite’). It is easy to get caught up in various family dramas and debates (political ones, especially) – Do your best not to fall into this trap or you’ll just find yourself “wrestling with a pig in the mud” (everyone gets dirty in the end).
Due to the highly charged nature of the dysfunctional family ‘dance’ and the heavy load of fears and/or expectations some adult survivors bear, it is especially important that you do not use alcohol or substances to cope with tensions or inner anxieties you may be experiencing. Being “tipsy” or inebriated is not conducive to remaining self-empowered, grounded, and centered, so do be mindful and consider saying “no” to alcohol or mood-altering, recreational substances when at your family event.
If you feel yourself getting triggered (i.e., you might feel your heart-rate speeding up, notice you are getting anxious, feel dissociated or ‘distant’, and/or feel like you want to lash out in anger at someone) simply take a few, long, deep breaths and excuse yourself from the conversation. You need not offer any apologies, nor do you need to defend yourself or explain yourself to anybody if someone tries to make you feel bad for leaving. Take a short walk outside, connect with nature, count backwards by 7 from 100 (this gets the mind focused on something else less intense), or take a ‘time-out’ away from everyone (it is a good idea to bring a daily meditation book to read so you can regroup while taking a break).
When you return, focus on those people you feel okay being around – ideally, your family ‘allies’ (people you genuinely like and who like and support you in return). And keep taking deep breaths!
5. Envision your Energetic Boundaries
If you come from an enmeshed or abusive family system, you may be used to family members violating your boundaries repeatedly; you may even avoid being around family because you are not sure how to protect yourself from such emotionally aggressive – even openly hostile – behavior.
If you choose to be around family that you know may treat you badly (for example, a wedding or funeral you genuinely wish to attend), be prepared for the worst and plan accordingly. One strategy that my clients have found to be effective is to imagine that you are surrounded by a ball of white light. You are protected within this light and nothing but loving energy is allowed in. Any hurtful comments from others just bounces off this white shield of light and drifts away.
Remember, no one has the right to behave disrespectfully or abusively toward you. You are not “bad,” “wrong,” or fundamentally defective and you’ve done nothing to deserve being treated in a rejecting, shaming manner. If someone tries to put you off balance, remind yourself that they are the ones that have the problem – not you.
6. Consider Bringing an “Ally”
If you know that one or more members of your family are likely to target you and treat you poorly, yet you still wish to attend the event, it is a good idea to bring an “ally” with you to the gathering. This can be a friend or significant other who loves you and can support you and even act as a ‘buffer’ when you are with your family. Even your pet can serve as an ally and a buffer, if it is possible to bring them with you and keep them safe.
When bringing a friend or partner, I recommend that you and your ally agree upon a signal of some sort that you can use if you are feeling trapped or ensnared by family and need help to get away. For example, tugging on your ear or scratching your nose are ways to signal your ally that you are struggling and need their help and intervention. Your ally can interrupt and ask something like, “Seen any good movies lately?” to get the conversation on a different track.
Even though it can be difficult, do your best to not personalize hurtful, insensitive comments. Remind yourself that the aggressor is simply being true to their nature and trying to get you to “wrestle in the mud” with them. See it for what it is and imagine yourself flying above it all, unharmed. “To keep others down, you would have to live your life on your knees” (I Ching). Stand tall, and don’t sink down to their level.
7. Help to Structure the Time
Even the most dysfunctional family can sometimes find activities they enjoy doing together. Some families enjoy watching sports on TV or playing charades, board games, or cards. In my family, it was gathering around the piano singing (sometimes as badly as possible, on purpose), or getting my mother to unearth her stashed-away accordion so she could play a particularly mournful Eastern-European ‘gypsy’ song, or a fast-paced tune to which the rest of us madly danced the Polka. These all serve as positive memories today.
Think of how you might help your family structure time in a manner that invites positive interactions and then do your best to help make that happen. You might be surprised when you leave with a new memory to cherish – one you never expected. “Believe nothing – Entertain possibilities”!
8. Gather Family History
A family event might also be a great time to unearth some valuable family history, especially from any senior family members (going through photo albums often invites and encourages these types of sharings). The more you learn about your family – especially possible traumatic events, i.e., unexpected deaths, divorce, missing family members, addiction, suicide, etc – the more you (and your therapist, if you have one) may be able to identify multi-generational patterns that might increase your understanding of possible inter-generational trauma, as well as family system ‘roles’ (who was the ‘scapegoat’, ‘golden child’, ‘caretaker’, ‘clown’, etc, in generations before you?), which all can be very helpful in regard to your healing and recovery process, especially if you are working on a family genogram.
9. Breathe Deeply…and Practice ‘Radical Acceptance’…
Life does what life will do. Reality unfolds and much of the time there is not much we can do about it, other than adjust to all that is unfolding and choose how we will respond to it. There is a saying from the East: “Do the clouds ask the sun for forgiveness for passing across its face?”
Remember that dysfunctional families are driven by primal, powerful inter and multi-generational forces. You did not cause your family’s dysfunction and poor treatment of you, you cannot cure this dysfunction, and you can’t control the harmful dynamics. Know when to stop trying to ‘ride the tiger’ and always act in a manner that serves you at the highest level. If that means no longer engaging with harmful or abusive family members, so be it.
10. Going ‘No Contact’ With Family: A Special Note
For some, the only way to gain traction in their recovery from dysfunctional / narcissistic family abuse is to have no contact with their family-of-origin at all. Those who are not in contact with family by necessity and/or choice often feel caught in a ‘double bind’ (“damned if I do / damned if I don’t”) situation.
The fact of the matter is, many adult survivors of dysfunctional family systems are shamed and stigmatized by society when they choose to break off contact with harmful family members. Even your closest friends might raise an eyebrow and look confused when you let them know you choose not to have contact with some (or all) of your family. In some cases, your own therapist may not fully ‘get it’ and may encourage you to reach out because “family is so important, no matter what has happened in the past.”
Being able to connect with others who are in a similar position as you can be both validating and reassuring. Consider joining a support forum where you can interact with others who are prioritizing their own mental and emotional health and who can understand your unique issues and challenges. There are many such forums, including the one offered online by Adult Survivors of Child Abuse (ASCA) or Out of the Storm (which focuses on recovering from relational trauma).
Although the aspiration to experience familial harmony is admirable, it is also important that you do not fall into the chasm that exists between the ‘actual’ and the ‘ideal’. Do your best to create moments that are meaningful to you. Arrive with your favorite foods, games, or decorations. If the family gathering is at your own home, then leave time at the end of the evening after everyone has left to relax alone or with a loved one (pets included) and reflect upon the day while listening to your favorite music. Or grab your journal and go over what you are grateful for about how you were able to move through what might have been a difficult, challenging day as you acknowledge and celebrate your own recovery from dysfunctional family dynamics.
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About the Author: Rebecca C. Mandeville is a licensed psychotherapist, educator, blogger, and author. She coined the term Family Scapegoating Abuse (FSA) while researching family scapegoating’s impact on the targeted child or adult child. Her pioneering research on FSA is recognized worldwide and she is currently coordinating her research on FSA and C-PTSD (complex trauma) with interested Universities for future (peer-reviewed) studies. Learn more about Rebecca and her book on family scapegoating abuse by visiting scapegoatrecovery.com.
Copyright 2021 | Rebecca C. Mandeville | All Rights Reserved