Dealing with toxic family members can be difficult for anyone, but for people who are new to recovery, it can be especially challenging. For that reason, the holidays can be a difficult time for people who only recently left active addiction behind. 

Signs of a Toxic Relationship

There are a number of different ways that toxic family dynamics can present themselves, including:

  • Disrespect – your beliefs, your boundaries, your wishes, even your choice to get sober do not matter to them and they are often eager to put you down for the decisions you have made.
  • Fighting – it seems like they are always looking for a reason to be upset and if you don’t give them one, they will make one up by gaslighting and manipulating.
  • Abuse – bullying, harassment, constant criticism, threats, and even physical attacks may occur.
  • Tiptoeing – everyone in the family seems to be on edge and afraid to let their guard down when a certain person or people are present.
  • Their absence brings relief – it seems like everyone is also more relaxed, in a better mood, and has more fun when specific people are not around.

Protecting Yourself

With the holidays approaching, you may start to receive invitations to family events and struggle to determine how you want to handle these potentially difficult interactions. There are a few different ways you can safeguard your own well-being during the holidays, if you have toxic family members you’re concerned about seeing, but you don’t want to miss out on gatherings:

  • Prioritize self-care – Before, during and after the event, make sure you are eating well, getting enough sleep, attending recovery meetings, calling your sponsor and doing all of the other things that keep your recovery solid. It’s also okay to take breaks during stressful events.
  • Set and maintain healthy boundaries – In the days and weeks before the gathering occurs, think about your specific concerns, what you are and are not willing to accept and what your response will be if someone is engaging in behavior that violates your boundaries. Are you going to speak up for yourself and hope they reroute the discussion? Will you end the conversation? Are you going to leave the gathering if your boundaries are not respected?
  • Consider creating an escape plan – If prolonged interactions with your family leave you feeling drained, you might find it helpful to have plans to leave early to visit a friend or stay in a hotel. It is best not to rely on someone else for transportation, in case you determine that you need to leave.
  • Be mindful of falling into old patterns of interaction When we get together with people we have known all our lives, it can be easy to fall into old, familiar patterns of behavior. Being aware of this possibility can make it easier to refrain from doing so. 
  • Stand up for yourself – It is okay to tell people if the things they say hurt or upset you. It might not cause them to change, but it may feel better than swallowing your feelings.

Addressing the Aftermath

After the visit occurs, even if it goes well, there may be a lot of feelings to process. It is important to have a plan for how you will handle whatever you are feeling. Some strategies you may find helpful are:

  • Exercising
  • Talking to your support system – Calling a friend, a sponsor, or your therapist may be able to help you process everything that has happened.
  • Journaling – You can make note of what went well with the visit and things you want to handle differently the next time.
  • Spending some time with your chosen family – If your blood relatives are draining, it may help to spend time with the people who recharge your batteries.

Not Participating is a Choice

In some cases, it might be better not to engage with family, right now or even going forward. While it might upset some of your family members if you do not accept their invitation, you have the right and the obligation to protect your own well-being. This does have the potential to leave you alone on the holiday, but you can also make alternate plans: 

  • Arrange to spend time with family members who are not toxic
  • Schedule activities with sober friends
  • Pick up some extra work hours
  • Volunteer
  • Travel

At Safe Harbor Recovery Center in Portsmouth, VA, we encourage all of our clients to build and rebuild their relationships in a way that promotes their best chances at maintaining long-term recovery.