How to survive toxic family reunions

Bank holiday weekends are usually seen as an ideal time to get together with family and celebrate. But what if your relationship with your family is more fractured?

Research by Stand Alone, a UK charity focused on supporting estranged families, found that one in five families experience estrangement at some point.

For a lot of people, family estrangement isn’t entirely linear — it can involve minimal contact while continuing to come together at certain family events, and as pointed out by therapist Sally Baker, this can lead to old pain bubbling to the surface.

‘The family dining table can be the front line of seething resentment, triggers for uncomfortable memories, and where passive aggressive behaviour is freely passed around the table with the gravy,’ she tells Metro.co.uk.

So how do you get through these events without losing your mind?

According to Sally, a good way to centre yourself during tense family meals is by using an ’emotional freedom technique’ — or EMT. Also known as ‘psychological acupressure’, the idea of this technique is to discreetly tap in a way that stimulates acupressure points and helps to relieve stress and anxiety.

‘It is very grounding,’ she tells us. ‘It makes you feel much calmer. And it reminds you to breathe because what happens when you were sitting at a table with your family and it’s kicking off, all the old stuff coming back — you’re remembering the reason why you left home and hardly ever see these people — and all the time, your breathing is becoming more shallow.

‘What happens at these family gatherings will most often be old stuff being re enlivened. There’ll be old cruddy stuff long buried cruddy stuff that’s being triggered by the events of that day.’

Because of the likelihood of old trauma resurfacing, therapist Caroline Plumer says it’s important to stay in tune with yourself during these family events.

‘Pay attention to your feelings and attend to them,’ she shares. If you find yourself getting stressed and overwhelmed at these events, she recommends ‘finding a way to take short breaks or timeouts’.

She also recommends maintaining a sense of perspective during these kinds of events: ‘It’s a case of a few hours, or at most a day, and in 24 hours it will all be over. You’ve survived difficult days before and there’s no reason this day will be any different.’

When it comes to the possibility of arguments, Caroline suggests that it’s best to try and avoid them rather than facing them head-on.

‘Try to stay away for emotive topics,’ she says. ‘Whether that be religion, politics or things that you know are a specific trigger for your family.’

Sally agrees, saying that the healthiest thing to do in this situation is to ‘choose your battles.’ She asks: ‘Does it feel like it’s a hill that you’re willing to die on? Is it worth having that meal be remembered for the for the confrontation? Or is there a way you can let it go?’

Sometimes, confrontation with your family may be unavoidable. If this happens, Caroline suggests trying to empathise with your family members to avoid losing your head.

‘Seeing things from someone else’s perspective doesn’t mean you have to agree with them but it can make it easier to sympathise with them or take the sting out of the anger or frustration,’ she explains.

If it feels inevitable that going to a family event will lead to things blowing up, there’s nothing wrong with opting out if that’s what’s best for you.

‘If you’re going into a situation that is truly toxic, where you’re likely to be bullied or emotionally abused in some way, remember that you don’t have to go,’ Catherine notes. ‘They may be family, but the sad reality is that sometimes the healthiest thing to do is remove these people from our lives in order to protect our mental and emotional well being.’

If you do end up seeing your family, self-care after the event is just as important as during.

Catherine recommends: ‘If you find yourself wound up at the end of the day, try to do something relaxing that will help draw a line under the day – you don’t want to walk away with residual negative feelings or end up taking the stress out on those close to you.’

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