How to Survive Toxic Family During the Holidays

It’s the holidays!!!

That means… pretty trees, choir programs, road trips, time off, presents, treats… and for some of us FORCED TIME WITH TOXIC FAMILY AND FRIENDS. 

Let’s talk about toxic family for a minute…

Last week I got a message from a friend:

If I find myself trying to mind-read someone to anticipate what they will say or do so I can minimize conflict or criticism by making myself into what they want — am I safe to assume I’m dealing with a narcissist? 

Or have I been conditioned by toxic people to behave that way with anyone I feel may give me trouble?

There’s a woman where I work who simply cannot let me do my job. 

She is constantly suggesting I do this or that—perfectly acceptable tasks—without consideration that I am already occupied. She will walk right by things she could do, while my hands are full, and leave it for me to do later, even though my shift is done and it’s time for me to go home.

This morning I caught myself arguing with her in my mind. Then I realized she doesn’t deserve my acknowledgement.

Is this is how we get conditioned by upbringing or relationships to protect ourselves emotionally?”

I’d say it’s safe to assume that you’re dealing with a toxic unhealthy person for sure. Whether that means they’re narcissistic, bipolar, borderline, or a sociopath… there may not be a way to tell.

With a healthy, safe person in a healthy, safe relationship — you shouldn’t need to second-guess every interaction to make sure a casual comment isn’t going to trigger world war three, or be used against you. You shouldn’t have to tiptoe on eggshells until they leave the house.

Some people spend their entire childhoods feeling frozen and immovable because any unwitting action could have profound and terrifying consequences. Other people spend their entire marriages that way. 

But with emotionally mature, well-adjusted friends — self-censorship never even crosses your mind.

If your interaction with someone is characterized by constantly assessing whether you’re triggering their potential ire or if they’re going to use your words or actions to batter you later (aaaaand you’re not actually doing anything wrong, untrustworthy, immoral or dishonest) — then you might be dealing with someone toxic.

Can it be that easy to weed out the toxic people in our lives?


At least, that’s a good place to start… Here are two other things to consider carefully as you work on your boundaries and emotional health:

  1. Be certain you aren’t the toxic person in all of their lives. Make sure you are not manipulating, coercing, deceiving, or taking power over others, and your conscience is clear before God.
    But even so, we all have our encounters with toxic people. And it isn’t always easy to discern where the problem lies. The exception would be….
  2. If you have been conditioned BY toxic people in your past or present, to feel fearful and uncertain about everybody. This might mean you end up feeling obligated to walk on eggshells in all your relationships, because somebody else mistreated you badly and taught you not to trust. Then you might be in danger of weeding out wonderful people based on your own unhealthy conditioning.

Social conditioning can teach us to misperceive healthy people, simply because we are accustomed to being around toxic people. If toxic family was your baseline for “normal” then you’re probably going to have a deeply ingrained habit of second-guessing yourself.

So the question to ask:

Am I doubting myself and walking on eggshells because of how this particular person acts or has treated me in the past?
Or is my internal chaos triggered because I’m imposing it onto myself based on old assumptions, because of how OTHER people have treated me at other times?

Once you know the answer to those questions, now you’re ready to do something about it.
But what, exactly, can you do?

1) Refuse to interact with toxic people at all

Okay, so this is the hardcore approach. Set firm boundaries of what you will and won’t allow in your social surroundings, and follow through on them.

This might look like “I’m committed to being emotionally healthy and growing in my character. I can’t continue to get drawn into these pointless hurtful cycles of argument. I’d really love it if you wanted to join me in that, but if you don’t that’s okay too. However, if you decide this isn’t what you want right now, that’s going to mean we can’t spend time together. It’s your choice.”

Let them choose. And respect their decision, just like you want them to respect yours — even if you disagree with it. Of course, if they’re truly toxic, they’re probably not going to decide to come along on your journey of wellness. That’s okay — you communicated clearly and you gave them the invitation.

Cutting out toxic people is really nice when it’s possible, but what about when it simply doesn’t seem like an option? What if the toxic person is your immediate boss? Or your parent and you still live at home? Or someone else you can’t physically escape from?

2) Set limits to minimize the negative impact on your health

There are lots of ways to do this, and successful boundaries will look a little different in every situation. But here are some overall guidelines:

  1. Think long-term, not just the boundary for the moment.
    What is the root issue here? Is it really about the groceries or the missed appointment or that inter-office memo? Or is it about something absent in the way the other person communicates respect, value, trust, etc?
  2. Remember your own motive. 
    It’s not that you hate the other person (hopefully?), it’s that you love God’s healthy principles of good character more. Loving God’s principles more, means sticking to the boundaries you set, with grace, firmness, and clarity.
  3. Express the boundary clearly.
    Think it through before you make it known. Be prepared for pushback, and agree with yourself ahead of time that you will not be manipulated or talked into backing down.  Simply state your position, invite the person to participate, and clearly express where you stand if they choose not to respect it. Don’t threaten. Don’t engage in the pushback.

3) Change how you think

This is the most important one!
Changing how you think has the power to change how you feel.
Changing how you feel means the toxic person doesn’t have power over you anymore.
It also alters your plan of action, which changes your habits, and so on.

Take back all the brain space you’ve handed over to someone who isn’t safe or trustworthy. 

Listen to God’s strong impressions when you need to apologize to someone about a real wrong you have done. Take action to make things right. But stop second-guessing yourself over non-moral issues—give it to God as soon as you realize you’re doing it.

We are human, but we don’t wage war as humans do. We use God’s mighty weapons, not worldly weapons, to knock down the strongholds of human reasoning and to destroy false arguments. We destroy every proud obstacle that keeps people from knowing God. We capture their rebellious thoughts and teach them to obey Christ.
2 Corinthians 10:3-5


You ARE a victorious thought warrior! Taking your thoughts captive is  about putting your thoughts in subjection to Jesus, instead of letting yourself be ruled by the perceived (or real!) expectations of toxic people.

It really comes back to who you worship
the opinions of others,
your opinion of yourself,
or God’s opinion of you.

So if you have a choice of who you’re hanging out with this holiday season — consider this your official permission from Jesus to choose to surround yourself with healthy people.

If somehow you aren’t free to choose who you’re around this Christmas — this is your official permission from Jesus to choose not to let those toxic people dictate how you think and feel about yourself and your surroundings. 

You CAN refuse to have those conversations in your head about things that haven’t actually happened, or were long ago resolved.

You CAN decide that you are not going to spend your existence tiptoeing around someone who is in constant danger of blowing up or using every word against you. 

Instead, you can make the choice to focus on what pleases God, and what keeps your conscience clear. Refuse to worship anyone else’s opinion, (including your own).

Now, go enjoy the holidays with your sanity intact!


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