Navigating Family Dynamics this Holiday Season

By david bowes

On your mark, get set, and .. it’s holiday season.


Along with all the hustle and bustle of this season, for some of us, this time of year also means being around family – sometimes LOTS of family – and, that is not always an easy thing.  While family gatherings can be wonderful for the lucky few, for others of us, they can range from being uncomfortable to downright terrifying.  Family dynamics are a complicated thing, especially if you throw extended family into the mix.  Indeed, even the ‘best’ of families come with messy dynamics, and the more ‘dysfunctional’ ones .. well .. think messy to the power of ten.  So with that in mind, we figured that an article about navigating family dynamics would be a good – and hopefully helpful – idea for this edition of our newsletter. (This article is also published in the MDABC December 2015 newsletter, to see the full newsletter click here

To begin with, being around family can often evoke old roles, mindsets, and memories that have been unhelpful or even hurtful to us.  If we let them, they can draw us into patterns of thinking, feeling, and behavior that we thought we’d left behind (or are in the process of leaving behind).  So, before, entering into the fray of your family this season, it can be helpful to identify any unhelpful roles, or patterns of relating, or “games” that you’ve been sucked into in the past.  Simply being aware of these family dynamics can keep you from getting baited into them unawares.  And, with understanding, we can cultivate compassion.  So, if possible, try to realize everyone in your family is fumbling through their imperfections, hurts, and ingrained coping strategies.

The fact is, hurt people hurt people, and you are likely not the only one in your family to be struggling with family dynamics this season.  So with mindful understanding, try to invoke compassion for yourself and for your family members; and, in this spirit, avoid getting caught up in playing out past hurts in the present.  This can be very difficult when people are expecting you to act or react in certain ways.  And, it can be hard to respond with compassion to entrenched unhealthy patterns of relating and the people who are playing them out.  So, try to at least have compassion on yourself and accept where you’re at – if you need to, find a way to exit unhealthy situations as soon as possible and find other, more positive family members to interact with.

Another trap to avoid is what I call “projection-backlash” (also known as reciprocal determinism).  Basically, this is where you ‘project’ onto family members your own insecurities and anxiety about how you think they must perceive you, and then interact with them accordingly – feeling all of these projections coming back at you from them (even though this may not be the case at all).  Here, again, having awareness and compassion for yourself is key.  If possible, acknowledge your anxieties for what they are and what they are not.  They are simply thoughts and feelings.  And, while these patterns of thought and feeling likely have a history with you, they are not YOU!  The fact of the matter is that YOU are an amazing, unique, one-of-a-kind miracle-of-consciousness containing a universe of potential and brilliance.  Just trust me on this one – it’s true even if you don’t particularly feel it at the moment.  That said, try to approach your family with a “beginners mind” and focus on your present-moment interactions with them – as opposed to allowing anxiety or depression to dictate in advance how you will feel and interact.  Again, this is easier said than done.  So if you find yourself stuck in the midst of some “projection backlash” that’s ok.  Perfection ain’t possible in family dynamics.  So if things get messy, have compassion on yourself.  Family settings can be the hardest places to put your best intentions, mindful awareness, and personal work into practice!

Next, we come to the obstacle of dealing with critical comments from family members.  Critical words can hurt – especially when they come from family.  And, while some negativity is just plain negativity, often criticism from family is a poorly crafted attempt at expressing care and concern.   So, with this in mind, it can be helpful to respond to criticism using “I” statements which assume care such as: “I understand that you want the best for me, but when you say it that way I feel hurt and criticised”.  You may be pleasantly surprised at the results.  If your response to criticism is well received, you can even take things a step further suggest to the “critic” how they could express their care to you in a way that is more positive and helpful.

Also, within family dynamics, there are often a whole lot of spoken or unspoken expectations.  And, expectations can be a huge burden to shoulder.  When we burden ourselves with “shoulds” such as: “I should be there more for my parents”; or, “I should be more successful”; or, “I should be more extroverted tonight”; etc., we can take away from the unique presence we bring to our families.  So in the words of Albert Ellis (founder of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy), “DON’T SHOULD ON YOURSELF”!  Try to identify the “shoulds” that may creep in and try to make you feel guilty.  With that awareness, you have a better shot at avoiding them and just enjoy being yourself.

Finally, instead of drawing this out into a full novel of an article, here are a few more suggestions in point form that some of us have found helpful in navigating family dynamics – both in general and especially during the holiday season.

  • Before going into a family gathering, set your boundaries in advance and, if possible, make them known. If you need to leave a situation that is unhealthy and out of your control, that’s OK!  Have an exit strategy in place and use it if necessary.
  • If anxiety or other overwhelming feelings are starting to creep in, try taking mini breaks. Go to the washroom, get some fresh air, go and smoke a Christmas cigar (or pretend to), or find some task you can do (such as helping in the kitchen or with clean up).
  • Avoid the booze in an attempt to loosen up or escape your feelings. In 97.875% of stressful family situations too much alcohol only makes things worse.
  • Surround yourself with your “allies”. g. certain cousins, siblings, or other relatives you feel comfortable with and who are supportive.  If possible, talk to them in advance about any struggles you might have being around your family (or certain members thereof).  You can even plan ways in which they can “rescue” you from certain individuals, conversations, and/or situations.
  • Minimize your interactions with difficult relatives. Remember: it’s okay to walk away from a conversation that’s rubbing you the wrong way and finding someone else to connect with.
  • If there is too much unresolved trauma in your family (or with a particular person who will be at a family gathering) it is OK to bail on a family gathering altogether. It’s not worth it to subject yourself to extreme toxicity and/or re-traumatization just in order to be a “good” member of the family. (remember: don’t should on yourself).  If this is the case, process it with your therapist and, if possible, communicate to a supportive family member why you will not be attending.  Instead, plan some other way to celebrate the holidays that will nourish your well-being.
  • Make sure you’ve had enough rest and had something to drink/eat before your family gathering. Being sleep deprived, hungry and/or dehydrated can sometimes amplify difficult situations.
  • Pick your battles AND savor the good moments.
  • Practice lots of self-care before and after these family events. You can even plan some kind of a reward for yourself after the holidays are done.

One of my professors once rightly stated: “life is messy and family dynamics are even more so”; however, with a bit of forethought and awareness, we can navigate these complexities a lot better than we might imagine.  Best of luck to you all, and Happy Holidays.


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