6 ways to survive the holidays with toxic relatives


Maybe your family's not Norman Rockwell during the holidays or even the Griswolds. But do they have to act like the Sopranos?

Anyone who's unconcerned about gravy recipes and place cards but very worried about how to keep the brandy away from Uncle Ned so he won't get abusive or keeping mom from dropping poison remarks about deadbeat dads is probably poised for a holiday with toxic relatives. The thing is, there really are ways to make the holiday better, say a collection of encouraging experts, from leadership coaches to advice columnists. Here are six ways to face — and face down — holiday gatherings that involve toxic relatives:

Revise the fantasy holiday story. Unwittingly, even those whose relatives are 100 percent unacceptable in holiday situations somehow expect better, noted Martha Beck in Oprah. "Even if we don't consciously realize it, we want our families to cease and desist from all the things that affect us like fingernails on a chalkboard. We don't ask much — just socially appropriate behavior, dammit, and minimal reparations for the more damaging incidents in our past."

This mindset just sets you up for another dismal encounter, she noted. Instead, take a timeout before you meet up with your relatives this season. "Sit quietly and acknowledge what you wish they were like," Beck said. "Then prepare to accept them even if they behave as they have always done in the past. At best you may be surprised to find that they actually are changing, that some of your wishes have come true. At worst you'll feel regrettably detached from your kinfolk as you watch them play out their usual psychoses."

That can also mean stopping the "ideal holiday" narrative around friends and co-workers, according to Gabrielle Moss in Bustle. "For a long time, I lied. When I was around coworkers and acquaintances, I just went along with them, agreeing with everything they said about how stoked they were to go home, just because I didn't want to seem weird or make them feel uncomfortable." This year, Moss noted, is the perfect time to stop such agreeable dishonesty. "You can stress other things you like about the holiday (time off work, holiday sales, charming leaf piles), you can be totally honest, or you can just say that the holidays aren't a huge deal for you and leave it there," she said.

Consider (gasp!) staying away from the toxic family holiday. There may be a point at which you need to say "enough is enough" to the family holiday gathering, according to Bustle. "Is dutifully heading home for ritualistic carving of turkey, followed by cranberry sauce and nine hours of insults about how you're not doing as well as your brother, worth it?" Moss asked.

You can even consider a decision to boycott the family gathering as an act of love, according to Jezebel. "Sometimes it's just healthier and more loving to let everyone have their space, until a better time comes for sharing one space."

Set boundaries ahead of time. Decide ahead of time just how much time with toxic relatives at the holidays you can bear. Is the thought of a certain relative being at Christmas dinner a deal breaker? Are there other family folks you can tolerate in a group setting as long as you're not in their company one on one? Can you stay three hours, or is one the limit? Should you rent a car in case you need a quick getaway? It's crucial to answer these questions before, not during, a family gathering, according to Oprah.

Get the criticism out of the way ahead of time. If fault-finding is as common at holiday brunch as the breakfast casserole, see if you can't have a heart-to-heart ahead of time, recommended Cheryl Dellasega, author of "Forced to Be Family: A Guide for Living with Sinister Sisters, Drama Mamas, and Infuriating In-Laws."

You might explain it like this, "I'm not feeling that good about the holidays this year and it seems like we've gotten into this routine where every time I come home, we fall back into the parent-child syndrome and you're kind of looking at the things that I'm not doing. Maybe this year you could focus on what I am doing or just not even focus on me at all, because it's really a time when I'm wanting to be with people who love me and wanting to be in a nurturing, positive environment."

Let criticism slide. And if despite all your planning the criticism happens right at the table while the rest of the family is digging into seconds? Clinical psychologist Roni Cohen-Sandler recommended this tactic to Jezebel: "Laugh it off, 'Yeah, that's me!' and then let the comment slide off you as if you're Teflon-coated. Since this probably isn't the first (or last) time you've heard particular criticisms from particular relatives, remember that the comment says more about them than about you."

Douse the toxic behavior. Leadership coach Alicia Bassuk calls certain types of belligerent toxic relatives the "toxically insurgent" and noted that their typical toxic trademarks include condescension, judgmental, abusive or inappropriate remarks, embarrassing others or hijacking credit to turn attention back to themselves. She noted that such toxic people's remarks fall flat when others don't participate. "Fire cannot burn without oxygen, so don't give them any," she wrote for Oprah. "Your reactions and rebuttals are the air this type needs to sustain their flames. Completely refuse to respond to or accommodate them in any way, including isolating them from others whenever possible, unless and until they can conduct themselves with civil consideration. This is like putting a jar over a candle. Poof."

The very best part of defusing toxic relatives during the holidays: Your tactics can carry over to the rest of the year, Bassuk said. "Do not let toxic people infect your demeanor, morale or self-esteem," she said. "With a little know-how, you can boost your psychic immunity against them."


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