Updated: Nov 13, 2021
Looking forward to a Happy Christmas? Not if you’ve come from a dysfunctional family.
Ever caught a re-run of Arrested Development? The Bluth family has been through it all — lawsuits, alcoholism and death. The meddling in-laws. The sibling rivalry. The petty arguing. The backhanded comments. The sarcasm and digs.
TV humor relies on these types of stereotypes and we can all usually relate to them to some extent.
But if your dysfunctional family is anything like mine, it isn’t funny. And Christmas brings the whole, real-life drama to the fore.
So, how do we cope during the Christmas break?
Christmas is stressful. End of. But if you’re plans include returning to the family that feels toxic and unsafe, your levels of anxiety might go through the roof.
I know many people who dread going home for Christmas and a lot of other people who thoroughly hate it. There’s also a lot of sadness at the prospect of returning to the family home because, although it should be a safe place of security, for many people they’re returning to a toxic environment that they thought they'd left behind.
We also carry a crazy fantasy that this year will be an improvement on last year, that our parents will criticize us less, we’d feel safer, happier and everyone will get along better. Sadly, that’s a false hope and it rarely happens.
Although it’s pretty easy to create space and boundaries and pursue good mental health with those tough family relationships during the year, when the holidays come around, it can become emotionally charged by its very nature. Consequently, it becomes tricky to navigate family gatherings.
6 Dysfunctional Family Tactics They Use To Trip You Up
There are 6 tactics that the classic dysfunctional family will use from the moment we turn up at the door full of (dreaded) Christmas cheer. It’s good to be aware of them ahead of time.
Here’s a heads up:
1. Silent treatment
Many family members resort to the silent treatment, which can garner pity and groveling and is exactly what the manipulator wants. The closer you are to a narcissist, the more chance that their actions will display this sort of behavior.
Silence is one of the narcissist's weapons of choice because it get’s the work done with little effort.
2. The selfless disguise
Truly selfless people are honorable. The dysfunctional family members can fool you into thinking they are selfless as well, but they’re really not. Their deeper motivation includes rewarding themselves but making everyone else think highly of their outward reasons which are false.
A dysfunctional family member’s Intimidation may not be a straightforward threat but it can still be frightening enough to make you do what they want. This is “covert” intimidation, a veiled form of kindness, and it is hard to interpret at times.
Sometimes a veiled threat can be no more than a particular “look” or a glance. Sometimes it’s rooted not so much in what someone says or does, but the manner or tone they employ when they do or say it. The message is always the same. The dysfunctional family member subtly implies that some sort of “holy hell” will break out if he doesn’t get his way or if someone dares to challenge or confronts his dysfunctional behavior.
You will recognize family manipulation when lies are involved. The narcissi are especially good at this. Because they will meet direct questions vague answers, indicating that manipulative lies are being told.
Liars are only striving for what they want but will always be able to give half-truths to convince you that they are honest and reliable people. When in truth liars always lie and tell more lies to cover the old ones.
5. Guilt trips
A dysfunctional family member can use guilt trips that are so persuasive that if you tell them no, they’ll find a way to make you feel bad about putting your foot down. Sometimes if you ask them to turn the volume down on their music, they will turn it off completely.
This is to make you feel bad about asking them to tone something down and, instead, will take it away completely. It’s a control thing - they have control, and yet you should still feel guilty!!
If dysfunctional family members are shaming you on your weaknesses they are being manipulative. Shaming is when someone criticizes or attacks you on your weaknesses.
For example, if you have insecurity about your weight, a dysfunctional family member will make shaming comments about that topic. This is to keep you beneath them in order to retain control. If they can retain control, they will, in turn, feel better about themselves.
When The White Knight (Rescuer) Re-surfaces
Many of us raised in a dysfunctional family tried to rescue or ‘fix’ our parents when we were children. We did it to stop people from feeling bad or rescue them from some perceived harm or to prevent a situation from becoming worse.
Those of us who used rescuing tried to make others feel better or at least prevent them from feeling worse. We tried to avoid hurting other people's feelings and to solve other people's problems for them.
Most of us rescuers were given the power to attempt to rescue other family members in some significant way as a child. We came to believe in this power and, from time to time, it seemed that someone was actually saved.
Once we head back to the home ranch, it’s not unusual to revert back to type and take up the old rescue role again.
James 32, talks about his mother,
“I was always trying to make my mum feel better when I was a little boy and when she stopped drinking and seemed to be doing well, I thought it was because of me! I didn’t see that it was because she was too poor to drink so when she turned to weed, I thought I’d cured her. Once I’d grown up, I still tried to fix her and she’d just get mad. It was a struggle to relate to her in any other way. We just fought the whole time.”
Here’s 5 ways that the nightmare at Christmas is worse for rescuers:
1. We have the tendency to neglect ourselves due to our neurotic obsession to look after others.
2. With us around, it’s not easy for others to learn to solve their own problems and face their own challenges, which can give us the impression they need rescuing more and so we neglect ourselves more!
3. Outside the lives of others, we hardly have a life of our own and Christmas is the perfect opportunity to tie our goals up with everyone else’s.
4. Getting absorbed by other people’s problems can be a way to escape taking responsibility for ourselves.
5. Rescuers are never really content because we don’t pay attention to our own needs and often suffer from burn out.
Of course, as adult rescuers, we need to be needed. And Christmas time offers us the perfect scenario: warring family members, lots of acting out victims and a healthy (not) quantity of alcohol.
We rescuers not only depend on the role to give us a sense of self, but we also depend on it to bridge the gap between others and ourselves. In other words we need the rescuer role just as much as the rescued needs rescuing.
In fact, we rescuers can feel as if our esteem takes a big hit when there is a gap between rescues because although we’re relieved that we’re not having to take care of every little thing for the rescued during that gap, we’re also wondering what we’re doing here if it isn't to rescue someone else. We need to fix someone and we may find ourselves launching into another search for the next victim in need of rescue.
The downside to performing the White Knight role may explain why we get so emotionally drained at Christmas.
6 Tips To Survive A Dysfunctional Family Christmas
1. An Invitation To Attend Christmas Is Not An Order
We don’t have to attend a family gathering that will make us uncomfortable. It’s OK to opt out of a situation that either isn’t healthy, or we believe will cause more damage and bitterness than good memories. We are adults now; we can do as we please. We don’t have to explain ourselves and we can change your mind at any point.
2. Don’t Take Part In The Family Drama
When dysfunctional family members act in a dysfunctional way, we have a choice: we can either choose to respond to the dysfunction in a way that maintains the issues, or, in a way that terminates them.
3. Keep Reality In Mind
Sometimes we can be in a lot of denial about what went on around the dysfunctional family dynamics. Over Christmas there can be a slow falling away of the fantasy and we need to replace it with the reality.
Most families have a degree of dysfunction; no family is perfect. But for some of us it can be so over-whelming it can be impossible to go back to the family of origin without feeling disempowered when we walk in the door.
When everyone is brought together in the family home at Christmas, we tend to return to our childhood roles. A critical parent, who has always undermined us, will probably continue to do so even though we’re grown up. There goes the subtle criticisms about our weight, our kid’s academic performance, our jobs or partners.
A dysfunctional family is like being in a pressure cooker. Some of us experience outright war; others have an undercurrent of feeling which we never express openly and which and cause us a lot of discomfort.
The reality to keep in mind is that we can't change the behavior or attitude of others but we can change our response.
4. Practice Forgiveness
We step into the family home and the memories flood back, along with the anger and hurt. Sometimes, forgiveness is a process. Deep wounds take a long time to heal. We can’t be discouraged if we find ourselves needing to forgive someone we thought we already forgave. It’s normal.
BUT, the most important person we need to forgive is ourselves; we need to forgive us for getting into a bit of a state at Christmas. A normal response to anyone raised in a dysfunctional family and a situation that anyone would find difficult.
5. Keep Expectations In Check
We all have reasons why we do what we do. Expecting perfection from others will always leave us frustrated. Despite our hopes that things will be different this year, they probably won’t. Everyone’s travelling back with their presents at Christmas, but packed at the bottom of the bag are all the old grievances and resentments.
It helps to realistic in our expectations.
If we expect it to be the same as last year, and if we’ve mentally prepared for that by knowing we can allow others to wrestle with their problems, we can enjoy ourselves more.
6. Soul Search Our Motives
It’s important we ask ourselves why we’re going home for Christmas, and if we want to go, to focus on the positive reasons calling us back, as opposed to the upsetting things, like a bullying parent or a sibling we dislike.
It’s also important, to look at the situation realistically, and objectively and assess if it’s worth it. By going into our own heads and addressing the hurt and taking responsibility for it can result in us making healthier decisions around our dysfunctional family.
The key is to acknowledge how someone’s behavior is affecting us and decide we won’t be affected in that way again.