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How to celebrate the holidays with toxic family members

By John Patrick Magno Ranara Published Feb 07, 2024 12:21 pm

Family gatherings during holidays such as the Lunar New Year hold big significance in many cultures, bringing loved ones together. However, for some individuals, these occasions can be overshadowed by strained relationships with certain relatives.

Though Chinese-Filipino families find strength in celebratory gatherings, Chinese society and culture expert Sidney Cristopher Bata reminds us that unhealthy behaviors can ruin even the strongest connections.

Chinese families are often said to be stricter and more demanding than other cultures. Bata explained that this could be attributed to filial piety or the attitude of respect for parents and ancestors, and toxic traits manifest in expectations that children should be better than their parents.

“As the parents worked hard and succeeded, the same is expected, if not, exceeded. This includes education, work, career, family life, and status in the society,” he said, adding that harmful behavior may be seen in relatives comparing milestones or achievements among themselves.

How should you celebrate the holidays with toxic family members?

If you have toxic relatives, a family gathering is the last thing on your agenda. According to Dr. Marissa de Guzman, a professor and psychiatrist from the University of the Philippines College of Medicine, you can always choose to make yourself unavailable as you have the right to choose who you spend your time and energy with.

“One of the best ways to deal with a toxic person is to limit or avoid contact with them. You can do this by setting boundaries, saying no, or distancing yourself physically or emotionally. You don’t have to answer their calls, texts, or emails, or engage in their drama or negativity,” de Guzman said in an interview with L!fe

On the other hand, clinical psychologist Rainier Ladic cautioned that not showing up at family gatherings might create a negative impression on you. However, it’s still wise to create boundaries if your relatives cause you to foster unpleasant feelings.

“If this boundary means to not show up in family gatherings, then that is fine but, if there can be a way to minimize interactions with them without resorting to being absent, then this can be a ‘win-win’ situation,” Ladic said.

One of the best ways to deal with a toxic person is to limit or avoid contact with them. You can do this by setting boundaries, saying no, or distancing yourself physically or emotionally. You don’t have to answer their calls, texts, or emails, or engage in their drama or negativity.

In recognizing the toxic traits of relatives, Dr. Joan Rifareal, an expert from the Philippine Psychiatric Association and an advocate of mental health, told L!fe that these may manifest in the general connection between you and that family member.

Signs may not be visual, but they can be felt through actions or their way of communicating ideas and topics at hand.

“For instance, one may perceive a family member to be 'toxic' when they are heavily scrutinized in front of other family members to the point that they feel embarrassed or unwanted in that particular vicinity,” Rifareal said. "Toxic family members show themselves by displaying emotions or feelings that convey the idea that your presence is unwanted or that make you feel uncomfortable,” she added.

Dealing with toxicity

While choosing to skip family reunions is an easy option for many, it's not for others. The only way for you is to tough it out and try to survive until it’s time to bid farewells.

What should you do then? Here are some ways to help you deal with toxic relatives as shared by mental health experts.

  • Have self-control. When unavoidable interactions with difficult relatives arise, there are different strategies for approaching them with self-care in mind. Ladic advised that you should choose your words and actions carefully.
  • Seek help from trusted family members. Open up to family members whom you trust the most. In doing this, they might be able to help out in reaching out to those relatives and make them understand how their behaviors are affecting you.
  • Practice de-escalation techniques. If the inevitable happens and a conflict arises, you can try to put out the flames by practicing de-escalation techniques. Through this, you may be able to mitigate the unwanted effects and consequences associated with these disputes. “Certain topics and points of discussion are bound to be brought up. Should its discussion become out of hand or be unruly to all parties involved, try and shift the discussion to another topic or arrive at a solution that is impartial and a compromise to all,” Rifareal advised.
  • Kill them with kindness. Conflicts in the family can be challenging, but respect remains important. Consider staying silent to avoid escalation, or as Rifareal suggests, approach discussions with an open mind to understand their perspectives without immediate conflict. “‘Yes lang nang yes’ is a mentality associated with this, all to avoid lashing out at our relatives,” she pointed out.
  • Don’t blame yourself. De Guzman emphasized that toxic people might try to blame, guilt-trip, or gaslight you to make you feel responsible for your problems or emotions. But no matter how much they twist the narrative and make it seem like you're the wrong guy, never think that you’re the one who is at fault. “Don’t let them manipulate you into thinking that you are the problem. You are not,” de Guzman stressed.
  • Confront them about their behavior. Sometimes, beating around the bush leads to more problems. If you feel comfortable enough, it’s better to simply face them head-on and be frank about how their actions and behavior affect you to help them realize their mistakes. “Use ‘I’ statements to express your feelings and needs, such as ‘I feel hurt when you lie to me’ or ‘I need you to respect my boundaries.’ Avoid accusing, blaming, or criticizing them, as this might make them defensive or hostile,” de Guzman said.

Mental health or family ties?

As discussions around mental health gain prominence, it raises an important question: does prioritizing it justify severing ties with problematic family members? Ladic emphasizes the importance of not resorting to immediate estrangement at the first sign of trouble. 

“The world is not perfect and so, this includes inevitable instances where things will be inconvenient for us,” he said. “What we should do is to make sure that we have devised some 'damage control' and see if there will be good changes in their behaviors. If none, then this is the time we make them see the clear lines of our boundaries to protect our mental health,” he continued.

Rifareal echoed the same sentiments, noting how these individuals are still our relatives and family members at the end of the day.

“We may prioritize our mental health but we also must be present in the here and now for these individuals, even if it means sacrificing some of our time and energy to be with them,” she said.