I'm pretty much assuming that we all can agree on the fact that this isn't the most pleasant topic on the planet. But when I factor in the fact that I know what it's like to choose to remove myself from toxic family members and then I add to that, an article I read that said between 12-17 percent of folks are estranged from at least one family member (personally, based on a lot of stories I've been told, that stat seems really low to be honest with you), I knew that it would be necessary to get this done; especially during a year when a lot of us have spent more time away from loved ones, just with the pandemic alone.
If you're like me and holidays aren't really your thing anyway, figuring out how to make it through the next several weeks may not be that big of a deal. But if Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Eve are typically the time when you see your family the most and yet, for whatever the reason, this year, you're not speaking to some or all of your folks, take a deep breath, get yourself a warm cup of tea or cocoa and let's figure out how you can get to January 1, 2021 with your heart as intact as possible, OK?
Remember Why the Boundaries Exist in the First Place
I say it often because it's the truth—boundaries are limits and yes, limits oftentimes have to be applied to family members, just like anyone else; shoot, sometimes even more. It's clear that many of us either weren't taught what boundaries are as well as we should've been or we had people in our lives who constantly violated our boundaries, whether that's physically, emotionally, mentally or even spiritually (you know, people who use religion to justify all of their foolish, destructive and erratic behavior). And so, sometimes, a season of estrangement is so we can get away from the people who clearly have a lot to learn in the area of boundaries so that we can establish the ones that are best for us and the kind of life that we choose to live.
While it's perfectly normal (and understandable) to miss your family around this time of year, it's important to make sure that you do your best to separate your nostalgia and sentimentality from the truth, facts, and reality of why you are maintaining a distance from them to begin with. Make no mistake about it—if you're currently estranged because say, you've got family members who are controlling or manipulative, they will definitely try and use that to their advantage between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day. That said, if you choose to engage, let it be because you're ready, not simply because it's the holiday season because, at the end of the day, a holiday is just a day and you'll still have to pick up the pieces of whatever "extra else" your family brought into your life, once the festivities are over. Boundaries are designed to protect us. The violation of boundaries is abusive. Set boundaries first. Honor them. Then make whatever other decisions are best for you, based on that.
Be Honest with Yourself About What You’re Currently Feeling
As I've done a lot of my own healing as it relates to toxic family members, if I had to put together a top five list of things that made me be like, "Yeah, we need some distance", something that would probably go into the third or fourth slot, is the fact that I was never really given the space to feel what I wanted and needed to feel when it came to the abuse that I endured or the abusers who caused it. I was always cut off or emotionally manipulated and told that whatever thoughts or emotions I had weren't "pleasing to God" or valid to them. THAT. IS. POISON. And when you're constantly around people like that, it can cause you to have a bit of an identity crisis as you try and figure out who the heck you are and what your real feelings are vs. what they tried to guilt you into feeling—or not feeling.
While estrangement can be hard, if there is a bona fide benefit to it, it's that you now have the space to figure out how you feel when it comes to why you pulled yourself away, what you would need in order to reconcile and how you feel in this very moment. It's important to factor all of this in because between Hallmark movies, holiday music and your friends constantly bringing their own families up, it can be easy to question if you should totally forget your boundaries and at least act like you and your family are close; healthy even.
Please try and avoid doing that. I know a lot of media says that the holidays are a time for burying the hatchet 'n all, yet the reality is, if you didn't feel great about connecting back in June, December 25 shouldn't automatically change anything. Honor your feelings and make decisions from there because, remember—if your family had done the same, there would be no need to read this article…right?
Watch Your Triggers
On the heels of what I just said, there's a really good chance that someone from your family is gonna hit you up, saying that it's in the spirit of the holiday season. No one can really fault them for that; however, if you do choose to answer their DM, email, text, or phone call, just make sure that you know what your triggers are beforehand. For instance, something that I've learned is a sho 'nuf trigger for me are people who claim that they are reaching out to apologize, only to really call to justify foul behavior, hoping that by the time they are done, I will excuse what they've done—perhaps even feel sorry for them for hurting me in the first place (a true narcissism trait, by the way). For years, I would fall for that BS, only to hang up and feel like they opened up my wound all over again.
Why? Because when you've been harmed by someone, it's important for them to validate that pain; they can do that by taking full ownership for their actions. That said, whenever folks find a way to skirt around this fact, all they're doing is injuring you more. And when you keep getting hurt, either it makes you angry or turns you numb. So yeah, I had to stop dealing with the ones who did that to me because they've been like that since, shoot...for as long as I can remember. This means that they've been wounding me and causing me grief for as long as I can remember as well. I had to get some space so that the wounds could heal. Fully.
I don't know what sets you off and by no means am I saying that it's a given that once you get to the root of your triggers that you also shouldn't speak or deal with whoever triggers you. What I am saying is unsafe/toxic people seem to live to push triggers, so the way to deal with them is to know yours and then set up safeguards. If your controlling mama makes you a basket case with her religious deflecting, accept that. If your sister drives you up the wall with her constantly asking for things without ever offering something in return, own that. If you've got some other family member who puts you in the foulest of moods, just 10 minutes into a conversation, admit that too. Then make two decisions. First, decide if there is a way to deactivate that trigger within yourself (because expecting them to not trigger you is, 8 times out of 10, gonna disappoint you every time). Second, if you can't deactivate it, be real with yourself about whether total avoidance is still the best route to take. After the holidays, you've still got a life to live. It would be a shame to spend months into next year trying to heal from a few short weeks of the holiday season and that family of yours, simply because you let them trigger you in a way that you know you're not fully prepared to handle. Yet.
Create Your Own Traditions
While I was growing up, my mother was pretty big on Christmas. I remember getting a fresh evergreen Christmas tree, stringing popcorn, watching The Grinch Who Stole Christmas and listening to gospel Christmas music while she baked. It was also pretty common for folks to come over as she made us—yes, made us—go caroling in the neighborhood. Christmas was cool. As Christmas goes, I guess. However, as an adult, I don't observe Christmas or really any holiday. No, I'm not a Jehovah's Witness; I'm just the kind of person who, once I know the backstory on something and decide I don't want to be a part of it, I tend to dip out. Anyway, that's so not the point. Once I started fading out of Christmas, for years, I would get pushback. And if there's a truth about adulthood, it's that you now have the complete freedom to live your life as you see fit, without the need for anyone's permission or approval.
While being estranged means that you won't be a part of your family's holiday-themed customs, never forget that the flip to that is you can happily create some of your own. So yeah, take this time and ask yourself what you do and don't like about the holiday season. Then make plans for observing them—or not observing them—just as you see fit. Finally.
Spend Time with Some of Your “Love Family”
Friendships have layers and levels. I will be the very first person to agree with that resolve. I liken it to Christ and his 12 disciples. One was a devil (it's Scriptural—John 6:70). Eight were his homies. And then there was Peter, James and John—the three he asked to pray with him as he was preparing to make the ultimate sacrifice (Matthew 26, John 3:16); those were his top-tier, inner circle friends—the ones he probably saw as being like brothers to him. I've got people like that in my life. Individuals who are emotionally safe, who love me like we're blood and who have my back no matter what. While the family I was born into is my "blood family", I choose to call my dearest friends my "love family".
Even if you aren't close to and/or engaging your blood family this year, if you've got people in your world who you consider to be your own love family, I am willing to be my next paycheck that they will be more than willing to embrace you with open arms and a seat at their dinner table (so long as you show no signs of sickness and bring your mask). And because you are so at peace with them, you can easily avoid all of the discomfort and drama that might arise if you try and force yourself to be in an environment where you don't really want to be…just because it's "the holidays". Trust me, love family can be a wonderful alternative to blood family, if you want to be around people yet you want to not risk conflict and issues in the process.
Understand What True Reconciliation Requires
I can't tell you, just how many Christmas movies I've seen over the course of my lifetime, where the overall message is it's this time of year when all faults need to be wiped clean, so that we can start the year anew. There's A LOT I could say to that, yet I'll leave it where I typically do when I just wanna give the Reader's Digest version of my thoughts on the matter. If you feel like you want to connect back with the family who you're not currently interacting with, do that. Just make sure that you know who and what you're dealing with and that you are clear on what reconciliation is all about.
What reconciliation is not is what a lot of republicans are trying to shove down democrats' throats right through here; it's not about enduring constant abuse and then having the burden be placed on you, the one who had to endure it all, to set things right. While yes, restoring a broken relationship does require some forgiving on the "victim's" part, don't let anyone make you feel bad for expecting some full-on repenting on the "victimizer's" part as well. Repenting requires taking responsibility. Repentance requires wanting to make amends. Repentance requires seeking what you need in order for the estrangement to cease. Repentance also requires humility.
So, if a family member chooses to reach out, stating that reconciliation is what they truly desire, keep in mind what it looks like. Don't let anyone make you feel like being flippant or dismissive is good enough. It's not. Not by a long shot.
Again, I know this wasn't the warm-and-cozy-wrapped-up-in-a-big-red-bow kind of message. Still, I hope it offered up a little bit of clarity and confirmation for those who may not be with their family this year. Being estranged doesn't make you a bad person. It makes you someone who simply wants better for yourself. Feel good about that. Even if that means experiencing a different kind of holiday season this year. One that brings peace and goodwill your way—just differently.
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