It can be hard seeing family over the holidays when relationships are strained. In part two of our series on estrangement and the holidays, SANE Peer Support Worker JD has some tips on dealing with challenging family events.
For some of us, we may be estranged from our families most of the time and only see them on the holidays.
There are lots of reasons we may choose to sever ties with family. But there are also lots of reasons we choose to keep in touch. It’s complicated. Often the holidays bring up the desire and the pressure to reconnect.
It can be tough because we spend a lot of the year protecting our peace and we want to do the same on the holidays. And yet, it can feel like several months of getting under our skin is condensed into just a few hours. So going in with a plan of action is super important!
One strategy I learned in DBT and use all the time is ‘coping ahead’. It means thinking of all the worst possible things that could happen – which I know just sounds like anxiety, but you go one step further – and planning how you will cope so you have some strategies ready in advance.
An important part of coping ahead for me is having an exit strategy. I know where my line is ahead of schedule, and as soon as that line is crossed, I go into exit mode. This may even involve mentioning at the start of the function that I have a headache or need to head off somewhere else, so I already have an out.
Let me get up on my soapbox for a second!
I know I should probably tell you that knowing and asserting your boundaries in interactions with your family is important. But I also think setting boundaries can be impossibly difficult when you are thrust back into abusive dynamics.
That’s why I think it is essential for me to have a strategy for respecting my own boundaries if and when people don’t respect them. This is why once again, coping ahead and exit strategies can come in really handy. Sure, it may involve a few white lies but sometimes it’s just about survival and getting through the day.
I also think it is important to have an ally. Bring along a friend or a partner or even a pet that you can lean on if things get tough.
And if all else fails, I have often taken the approach of just hanging out at the kids’ table! Your extended family will be so grateful to you for entertaining the little ones, and you won’t have to hear what any of the adults say. Win-Win!
Recovery time is also huge for me. Whether that means nothing but Netflix for a week or catching up with a friend: do things that fill your cup afterwards. It can be tough at this time of year when all of our care teams go on vacation, so finding ways to fill ourselves up whilst we wait for that all important first session back with a Psych or whoever can be key.
For myself, seeing my family on the holidays not only meant seeing my abusive parents, but also seeing the person who sexually abused me as a child. I’m really glad I don’t see them anymore because when I did I would find myself slipping back into unhealthy patterns. It would often leave me destabilised for months afterward.
Why am I saying this? Well, you may go in with a perfect plan and it all just falls apart. Or you may have your buttons pushed in new ways you didn’t expect. Please don’t beat yourself up. You did the best you could with the resources you had available.
It's a big decision to decide not to see your family on the holidays. It’s not one I took lightly and it’s not one I ever wanted to make. I totally get why you are seeing your family, despite it causing you pain. I hope you can be kind to yourself and realise how strong you are.
Remember, the kid’s table is always an option!
If this is a complicated time of year for you, you can connect with people who get it over on our online Forums. It’s a safe, anonymous community that’s available for you 24/7 over the holidays.
And for more help coping with estrangement over the holidays, read JD’s real experience and advice on navigating this time of year after separating from family.