There are so many of us that experience a particular anxiety-provoking element of the toxic relationships in our lives during the holiday season. The effect these relationships may have on us can leave long-lasting wounds. It is greatly important to be as self-aware of our needs and environments as we can at this time of year as so many of us are keenly aware of what occurs within toxic families year after year. So we may need to ask ourselves what do my toxic relationships look like and what are my unmet needs within them?
What does a Toxic Family Relationship look like?
How do we even know if and at what level of severity the toxic relationship within our families may be? How do we gauge this and understand what a toxic relationship even looks like for certain? Please know, toxic relationships include family members, friends, or coworkers alike. During the holidays they often manifest into a greater unhealthy situations for us within family environments. Let’s take a look at what that may mean for us. The toxic person builds stressful situations, stressful interpersonal relationships, and causes mental and emotional distress. A toxic relationship can be anyone or anything. These relationships can and often will make it so you do not feel okay to be yourself. These relationships can cause feelings of guilt, shame, embarrassment, and doubt. A toxic person does not respect your boundaries and expressing one’s boundaries can often be met with the invalidation of your emotions or beliefs. Toxicity shows itself in the forms of both physical and emotional abuse and often the emotional invalidation is the abuse that persists and most likely brought you to where you are now.
Also, please allow yourself to understand that you do deserve validation. You do deserve to have your basic needs met including emotional and physical boundaries. If you have ever experienced being told your feelings are wrong, dramatic, or simply to stop, then you understand the impact of emotional invalidation. Some examples of toxic behaviors include:
- Emotional Invalidation
- Passive aggressiveness
- Demeaning behavior
- Substance abuse
- Mental health issues
- Emotional, psychological, or physical abuse
So, now that we understand a little clearer what our needs and lack of needs met are within these relationships, we can now explore how to get those needs and boundaries met during this holiday season. First, we can ask ourselves a few questions when going into any environment of toxicity. A checklist to keep with you or share with someone dealing with toxic family members can be helpful. Here are a few examples of important key questions and thoughts in preparation for being in these environments with toxic people during the holidays.
1. What do you need from this experience?
2. What are your exposure limits?
3. Know your boundaries and implement them.
4. Rules of engagement.
5. Deflect, Consistency and “I”
6. Acceptance not approval
7. Support system
Let us explore the checklist step by step below.
What Do You Need From This Experience?
Be realistic. Know what your needs, boundaries, and aftercare are for yourself. We often go in with expectations. Understand that some people will always have certain behaviors. You are not here to fix or please them. Your experience may just be about knowing what you want and what boundaries to set. Avoidance and anxiety are often familiar experiences in these relationships. Combative or demeaning behavior may be as well. So let us try to really think and about what our true needs are and practice setting those boundaries before we are within these toxic situations. Practice writing them down, practice saying them out loud, try a creative way to practice, and be kind to yourself as you do. Remember you deserve validation and respect. It all starts with you. Give yourself a mental hug, acknowledge how brave and necessary this is for you. You are taking the first steps in giving yourself what you need where others may not be able to.
What Are Your Exposure Limits?
Before we ever arrive or open the door to anyone during the holidays, we may have already spent days or weeks in anticipatory anxiety. The stress from the year before surely remains and for some of us, we may be around certain toxic people daily. This is why we know our limits. Know what your limits of exposure are within any given environment. What is your acceptable stay for a visit, when is it time to depart and self-care? If you are aware ahead of time of the toxic relationships involved you will be better prepared for what that particular limit may be for you. Once you know this, you can step into your necessary boundaries.
Know Your Boundaries and Implement Them
As you examined what you need from this experience, you may have already put in some practice time with your boundaries. Once you have a conviction to your boundaries, you can implement your boundary setting. Knowing specifically what this means for you can give you the confidence you need to place your boundaries before others. Perhaps there are certain sensitive topics from the past, reoccurring triggers, or abusive treatment that you are not allowing. Whatever these are for you, remember they are yours and you can set them however you need to. No one is obligated to accept or like what they are but they are still important and necessary for you and that is all that matters. Keep those reminders to yourself of how you deserve to be acknowledged and treated with respect. You are good enough the way you are. You are taking further steps in caring for yourself by setting these boundaries.
Rules of Engagement
Many people may feel that the holidays may be different this year. They may feel that perhaps this is the year the toxic people will hear them or “change”. Being realistic is key. Understand that some people as stated before, may not change their behaviors. Accept that people will act as they have before and may again this year. Keeping your expectations realistic and focused on your acceptable rules of engagement is all that matters. Knowing this, you may be able to navigate your environment safer. Following what is an acceptable conversation, exchange of any kind, and behavior will help guide you further. Be prepared when to depart a situation or the environment entirely if need be. Again, this is a form of making sure you are safe and supported first and foremost.
Deflect, Consistency, and “I”
A very important strategy to go with your rules of engagement is to “deflect”. This means not to address any toxic behavior directly (especially during the stress of the holidays) and try to turn a conversation, for example, towards a positive direction. Let’s say an inquisitive and persistent relative will not let a topic go, or is really pushing the boundaries you have set for yourself, you can address this with; “I prefer more positive things in my life right now and would love to know more about you with x,y, or z?” Here is where you can try to change the subject positively and still hold your boundaries. Consistency is crucial. Practice here with yourself as well. The more scenarios, positive thoughts, and affirmations you can give yourself, the better for your needs. Remember to give yourself as much “I” language as you can. This means not using phrases like “they always do this or that, etc.” Try more affirmative phrases like “I am proud I am caring for myself and setting boundaries.” or “I am taking care of my needs here and not allowing anyone to make me feel like it is not okay to be who I am.”
Acceptance Not Approval
We cannot expect everything in toxic environments. Our job is to take care of ourselves and set the boundaries we need. Upon doing so, we are often met with opposition or lack of acknowledgment. In the face of criticism and toxic behavior, we can suggest others to; “perhaps phrase that differently.” or; “I love you but x, y, or z are off-limit topics” We can accept that others will be who they are just as you are who you are. This does not mean we approve of any toxic behaviors. When we meet people where they are at, it does not always get met in a mutually accepted fashion but we can still see people for who they are and choose to have that toxic relationship not continue. The means by which we do so are our own. These steps are suggestions and you are free to explore the means of applying your own boundaries that are right for you.
Having someone on call to text or act as a buffer can be helpful. Confiding in a trusted friend or family member before the holiday activities begin can also be a great starting point for developing a support system. There are also the options of therapy, books, other online guides to help assist you with these toxic relationships. It is just as important to maintain that support after the holidays end. The after-effects of these encounters can be emotionally draining so if you can maintain your support system beyond the holiday visits, it can aid in healing from the exposure and emotional toll that may affect you. If keeping emotional distance from someone is necessary, that is also a good tool to use in your healing. Sometimes family and friends may not be able to understand and acknowledge you no matter what you try. This imakes it perfectly acceptable for keeping distance superficial if that is what feels safe and supportive for you.
This holiday guide may be difficult to execute. Over time, it does become easier and the healing and needs you so desire become more and more a part of your everyday state of normalcy. Keep practicing, keep a loving self-care routine with yourself, and support yourself in any way you may find that feels right to you. Check out the links below for a few more supportive references to aid in dealing with toxic relationships during the holidays as well as an upcoming Create For Healing Course that will dive further into the many layers of toxic relationships. With practice and a well-maintained garden of boundaries to support you, healing will follow each day.
More Supportive Resources
If you would like to take a moment for further research and support, here are a few very informative books to help you in your journey through the toxic relationships and personal healing.
- Managing Toxic Families – Psychology Today
- Boundaries by Henry Cloud
- It Didn’t Start With You – Mark Wolynn
- When To Walk Away – Gary Thomas