Enjoying the Holidays with Toxic Family

December 6, 2018

 

Ahh it's the most wonderful time of the year.

 

It can also be the most stressful and physically demanding time of the year.

 

Every single Christmas, since developing POTS, I pushed myself to keep up with all of the previous Christmas traditions I loved and enjoyed. As a result, every single year it took me around a month to recover from the holiday season.

 

Christmas became something I had to push through instead of something to enjoy.

 

Last year, as December approached, my stress levels began to rise. Shopping for gifts, going to holiday parties, and staying awake and upright all day on Christmas day were all things that took a lot of physical energy out of me. 

 

Last year, I wrote a blog post called How To Prepare for the Holidays where I shared what I personally learned to implement in order to minimize stress and be mindful during the holiday season. This year, I was determined to avoid holiday burnout; I listened to all the tips I shared from that blog post and was done my Christmas shopping before December 1st!

 

In last year's blog post I talked more about practical ways to budget your energy, time, and money. Today I want to share more of what I've learned about putting boundaries around your energy, time, and money in the holiday season, specifically in regards to toxic family relationships.

 

Over the last few years, I have realized that for many of us, preparing for the holidays requires a lot more than just figuring out how we will budget our energy. For many of us, the holidays are filled with seeing family members we might not see on a regular basis, and some of those family members may bring about a lot of stress for you. Whether it's because they're manipulative, were previously abusive, put you down in small passive-aggressive comments, dismiss your illness, or just make you feel uncomfortable, being around these people can be physically and mentally exhausting.

 

Some of you reading this may be at a place where you know you have toxic loved ones in your life. Others may not like the idea of referring to their family members as "toxic" but know that being around them is exhausting. This quote below has helped me understand and explain what toxic relationships are and what they aren't:

 

 

Toxic family relationships are something I've been asked about hundreds of times on my Instagram account. It's a topic I've tried to cover slowly over my Instagram stories, and have tired to create support for with my closed Facebook support group Navigating Relationships with a Chronic Illness. However, this topic has always overwhelmed me as it's been one that's been of personal relevance to me. The idea of tackling a problem as complex and heavy as this has been daunting to me.

 

Thankfully, I'm finally able to say that I have healthy boundaries in all my interpersonal relationships, including with toxic family (I only have/had one toxic family member that I'm not going to go into details about).

 

It only took thousands of dollars of counselling. ;) 

 

This diagram above is one my friend gave me when she was studying to become a counsellor.

She does not know who created it.

 

So what are boundaries? Psychology Today defines boundaries as "the limits we set with other people, which indicate what we find acceptable and unacceptable in their behavior towards us. The ability to know our boundaries generally comes from a healthy sense of self-worth, or valuing yourself in a way that is not contingent on other people or the feelings they have toward you."

 

Implementing boundaries is a revolutionary act in a culture that teaches us that kindness means always saying "yes" and being there for everyone all the time no matter what.

 

 

Authors Henry Cloud and John Townsend of the bestselling of the book "Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life" (a book I highly recommend) explain that:

 

"Having clear boundaries is essential to a healthy, balanced lifestyle. A boundary is a personal property line that marks those things for which we are not responsible. In other words, boundaries define who we are and who we are not. Boundaries impact all areas of our lives: Physical boundaries help us determine who may touch us and under what circumstances. Mental boundaries give us the freedom to have our own thoughts and opinions. Emotional boundaries help us to deal with our own emotions and disengage from the harmful, manipulative emotions of others. Spiritual boundaries help us to distinguish God's will from our own and give us renewed awe for our creator."

 

I joined a class on Boundaries at my old church in which we read the Boundaries book by Cloud and Townsend, watched videos designed by them, and worked through a corresponding workbook.

 

One thing that stuck with me was how the authors compared boundaries to a gate. They said something along the lines of:

 

Boundaries are like a fence with a gate around your property, not a concrete wall where you don't let anyone in. You can open the gate and let your neighbours into your property, but if they start to trash the place, you ask them to leave. You get to control who comes in through the gate and for how long they get to stay.

 

 

The above diagram that I created is one to reflect on and familiarize yourself with on a regular basis,

especially as the holidays approach.

 

Establishing boundaries in your life is the only way to love others in a way. Anything else requires you to sacrifice your physical, mental, and spiritual health which will leave you resenting that loved one.

 

You're doing both your loved ones and yourself a huge disservice when you allow them to cross your boundaries.

 

Signs you lack boundaries in your relationships:

 

Resentment, bitterness, unforgiveness, gossiping, feeling taken advantage of, feeling like the relationship is one-sided, feeling like you're always giving and not receiving, being plagued by guilt when saying no, feeling exhausted by your interpersonal relationships, and feeling burnt out can all be signs of a lack of boundaries.

 

 

So how do we figure out what our boundaries are?

 

1. Write out everything that brings you joy.

2. Write out everything that brings you stress.

3. Write out your physical and mental limitations.

4. Write out the names of people who lift you up.

5. Write out the names of people who bring you down.

6. Write out your top 3 priorities in this season (more about this below).

 

 

After finishing this exercise, bring your attention to point 2 above. What kind of events bring you stress? What kind of situations bring you stress? Avoid these as much as possible. This is your first boundary.

 

Some stress is inevitable, but living a stressful life all the time is optional. Stress aggravates chronic illness symptoms exponentially. I only truly realized this was true once I started limiting my stress.

 

So what does this look like?

 

I hate malls. Every once in a while there are a couple stores I like to go to, but I eventually realized that every time I leave a mall it's with a migraine and 10x as much stress as before I went in.

 

So I don't go in malls. I don't meet in malls. I don't do malls (unless a group of friends wanted to meet inside to take pictures with Santa or there's something in the mall that I need and can't get anywhere else). So if someone asks me to go to a mall, I suggest another option, or if they really need to go to the mall I just decline. I recognized that I'm not a fun person to be with in malls. I want to sit down the whole time and if I'm in there for a long time, I can become irritable.

 

So by being agreeing to go to a mall to try to be "accommodating" and not wanting to be "difficult," I've actually made things harder on that friend, even though I've convinced myself that I'm going to the mall for them.

 

 

Now bring your attention to point 3: your physical and mental limitations. Focus specifically on the things you can do but will bring about a lot of consequences. Make a limit for yourself on how many times you can do any of those things in a week. Write down this limit. If you've already done it once this week and someone else asks you to do it, unless it's an important event that'll help your mental health at the cost of your physical, say no. I know that's oversimplifying it but it really is that simple, sometimes we just need permission from someone else that it's okay to say no. No is not rude, not mean, not hurtful. When deciding whether or not to do an activity that will bring you a lot of consequences, try when possible to make it align with your lists from point 1 (what brings you joy) and point 4 (people who lift you up). If saying "no" is hard for you, create a saying that will help you bring the same point across. Think of the saying before hand and memorize it so you're not scrambling in the moment. I personally realized that I'd often say yes to things when I didn't have my calendar in front of me. I now say "I'll look at my calendar when I get home and will let you know" - this is a perfect way for me to hold off on committing to something until I have all the information.

 

 

Now bring your attention to point 5, here you will find your toxic loved ones. Just like the quote above said, whether or not they're toxic by nature or you're just not compatible with them, these are unhealthy relationships. If they're friendships or optional relationships (well, almost all relationships are optional, but I'll get to that more in a minute), you might want to reconsider whether or not that relationship is worth having. Either way, interactions with these people should be drastically limited (this is your boundary), especially when trying to focus on your physical and mental health. If you're like me, a family member that you love deeply might be on this list; a family member that you will most likely be seeing for various holiday events.

 

 

Now bring your attention to point 6: "Write out your top 3 priorities in this season (more about this below)." I was recently inspired by "She Podcast"s episode "Overwhelmed or Overcommitted? How to Prioritize with the Power of 3." You can find this podcast on your podcast app or Spotify. This podcast episode inspired me to break down my 3 priorities in this season, and 3 ways in which I can actively ensure I'm prioritizing these 3 things.

 

 

Prior to this exercise, I had a broader way of looking at my priorities that I describe in my blog post "Intentional Living with a Chronic Illness." Here I share my life's mission statement, or at least my life's mission statement for the past couple of years. The 3 priorities above are how I hope to work on fulfilling my mission statement in this season of life.

 

What does this have to do with boundaries?

 

Everything.

 

Without a direction in life, you will go wherever the wind (or toxic people) take you. Before a mission statement, I was barely keeping my head above the water. I was saying yes to everyone and everything, only to have to cancel when my body wouldn't allow for it.

 

I was too busy doggy paddling that I wasn't actually getting anywhere. I was being stretched in every direction because I was allowing myself to be.

 

Setting goals can be overwhelming and lead to disappointment when it comes to living with an unpredictable chronic illness, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't live a purposeful life. It just means our goals will look a bit different. For example, you can always focus on being more kind and practicing self-love even if you're bedridden. 


What's one, or three, area(s) you want to be focusing on in this season?

 

Whatever it is, set a boundary around it. If your priority in this season is to be more loving, and there is a specific person who makes that more difficult, set a physical and/or emotional boundary with this person; limit your time with them, don't reply to their texts right away, don't allow yourself to be walked all over by them.

 

In "She Podcast"s episode "Overwhelmed or Overcommitted? How to Prioritize with the Power of 3," Jordan Dooley talks about how it's easier for her to make decisions by doing this 3x3 exercise (3 priorities and 3 ways to focus on them). Jordan explains how one of her priorities in this season is her marriage, so if it's between going to a work event or going in with her husband (when the work event is optional), she will choose to stay in with her husband.


One of my priorities in this season is doing my DNRS rounds (I talk about this on my Instagram story). So if I haven't done my rounds yet and a friend calls me just to talk, focusing on my priorities makes this really easy for me. I'll say something along the lines of "I haven't done my DNRS rounds yet, can I call you once I'm done?/can we talk tomorrow after my rounds?"

 

Thankfully, my friends are all very understanding of my need to focus on DNRS in this season. Focusing on DNRS now will increase my capacity to care for others in the future.

 

 

The problem is that not everyone will be understanding of the boundaries you set around your priorities in life. However, it's not your job to convince them to understand you.

 

Recently I've read a post that's been going around online lately that said,

 

"Self-care is also not arguing with people who are committed to misunderstanding you."

 

I love this quote SO much but it's definitely easier said than done.

 

Now that you've discovered what your boundaries are, here are some tips to help you maintain these boundaries with your unhealthy family relationships this holiday season:

 

 

1. List a few holiday activities you really want to do this season and deem everything else optional. In She Podcast's episode "How to Maximize Your Time by Automating Your Life," the guest speaker talks about how her and her family members (her husband and kids) each choose 1 thing they really want to do this Christmas season. They then focus on doing those activities and only say "yes" to other activities if you have the physical and mental resources to do so. Simplifying the holiday seasons can help us stay mindful (live in the moment) and help us actually enjoy the holidays. This will help prevent you from taking on additional responsibilities you don't have the mental or physical energy for, as a result of being guilt-tripped by others.

 

 

2. Figure out a comfortable way of saying "no." Like I said above, "If saying "no" is hard for you, create a saying that will help you bring the same point across. Think of the saying before hand and memorize it so you're not scrambling in the moment. I personally realized that I'd often say yes to things when I didn't have my calendar in front of me. I now say 'I'll look at my calendar when I get home and will let you know' - this is a perfect way for me to hold off on committing to something until I have all the information." Memorize your statement and practice using it in smaller situations with the healthy relationships you have, so the first time you're using it isn't with the toxic family member(s) at Christmas dinner. Here are a few ideas:

 

 

3. Create physical boundaries around this toxic family member. Do you have to spend time with them? The answer is usually no, but often times we want to spend time with the rest of the people that will be there. If you're continuing to see them because people expect you to, or because of guilt, this might be the year you decide that seeing them isn't healthy. It's hard to break traditions, but as I said in my blog post "How to Prepare for the Holidays when you Have a Chronic Illness," "traditions are supposed to be enjoyable, not obligatory. If you're burning yourself out over keeping up with tradition then that tradition is no longer serving you." You can make new traditions.

 

If distancing yourself completely from this family member isn't an option, you can create physical boundaries in other ways. For example, you can choose to only go to half of the holiday activities you usually go to with them, you can choose to have it at a public place, you can go to the activities but leave earlier, and you can try to plan to make sure you're never alone in a room with them.

 

No matter what you decide, it's okay. Toxic people will try to convince you otherwise, but that's why we call them toxic people.

 

These people will try to guilt trip you into sacrificing your boundaries, prepare yourself mentally for this. Remind yourself that they will not change unless they give you reason to believe otherwise. Don't try to convince yourself that it won't be "that bad" when you've left Christmas crying every single year. Don't let their guilt overpower you. Reminding yourself that this will happen and that this isn't a reflection of you but them will help you navigate this uncomfortable situation. 

 

Remind yourself of how they've responded to your boundaries in the past so you can prepare a response accordingly. 

 

 

4. Prepare other responses ahead of time. What kinds of things does this person say that usually upset you? A message I often receive from followers is how to respond to dismissive statements about their illness. When I first got sick, I had a lot of people say "well you look so good!" which used to bug me a lot (it no longer does).  This isn't necessarily a toxic statement, and can be said by well-meaning people. However, dismissive statements are definitely often used by toxic people. In response to this statement, I always just said "oh..thanks" and then later wished I said a lot more. I decided to prepare my statements ahead of time so that when emotions boiled up in me, I wouldn't be at a loss as to what to say. For that specific statement, I decided on saying (always with a smile) "Thanks! I wish I felt as good as I looked." This may sound silly, but saying it in a sarcastic way that also brings my point across but keeps things lighthearted felt like the best option for me.

5. Do a lot of self-reflection before events including toxic family members. Sometimes it's obvious why what toxic people say or do bugs us, other times it's not as obvious. This picture above is one I made that shares a conversation between my counsellor and I that I think applies to the majority of circumstances. However, if someone I love and had to be around (for whatever reason) didn't believe my illness to be true (thankfully I've never experienced this), it would hurt but it wouldn't be because deep down I don't believe my illness to be true. I've never once doubted the validity or severity of my physical suffering. However, being dismissed and invalidated is a lot more hurtful for people who doubt themselves overall (you don't have to doubt yourself about your illness but could be doubting yourself in other ways).

 

I like to think of the emotional work I do (praying, journalling, reading books, and getting to the root of any issue) as providing me with a protective shield/boundary around me. We'll never get to a place where nothing ever offends us, but we can love ourselves to a place where it doesn't hurt as much. 

 

If possible, I recommend seeing a therapist to help you further understand your family dynamics, help you heal from the pain these toxic people have caused you, and help equip you with tools to use to navigate these relationships.

 

“The more you love your decisions, the less you need others to love them.” - Unknown