dysfunctional family holiday

Here we are, one week from Christmas.  And you and I are in the same boat – anticipating another dysfunctional family holiday.

By this point, we sing Christmas songs in our sleep.  Sit frustrated in unexplained traffic jams, after hours of holiday shopping. Or perhaps we overdose on sappy holiday movies from the Hallmark Channel.  You know what I’m talking about?  Those flicks where families start out as messed up as ours, but finish as utterly transformed works of beauty.  All in under two hours.

No wonder we’re frustrated.  The “most wonderful season of all” highlights an uncomfortable truth:

What we have is not what we want.

What we want is a Walton Family Christmas – warm and fuzzy.  We’re thankful for just being together. Love and laughter flow freely.  Everybody genuinely appreciates their presents.  We all help in the kitchen.  We get along beautifully, and play well together.  But…

What we have is a family more like The Simpsons – sharp and prickly.  We barely tolerate each other.  We’re only be thankful for certain presents and  some food. Laughter springs from caustic jokes at others’ expense.  Nobody wants to help in the kitchen.  Few people actually get along, and forget playing anything together.

What we need is a reality check for our dysfunctional family.  

About those sappy movies – It’s called FICTION for a reason!  Our family lives can’t follow a writer’s tight story line.  In the same way, our love lives can’t compete with a romance novel.  We don’t exist to move from one hot moment to the next.  We have practical responsibilities and daily burdens.  We have substance issues, anxiety or depression, high blood pressure,  diabetes, plus financial challenges.

How can a writer’s plot embody all of our unique real world challenges?

About all those happy looking families around us – We don’t know what dysfunction lurks behind their hidden doors. I learned that just by hanging out in churches for years.  I remember turning green with envy while looking at “perfect” families.  Why couldn’t my family be like theirs?  They seemed so happy together, doing all the church activities as a happy family…

Years later, my dysfunctional family is still together.  But the seemingly perfect family is not.  Things were not what they seemed.

The truth is that all families are dysfunctional – in some sense.  And maybe that’s not the problem.  Maybe the real problem is what we do with that dysfunction. I’ve learned that we can do more than survive in a dysfunctional family. We might actually thrive in it if…

We adjust our expectations to fit our family’s reality. 

Here’s what I mean: I know who will be in my house this holiday. I’m pretty familiar with their typical quirks and how they might push my buttons.  But if I set my expectations too high, I’ll be grossly disappointed. So I’ll adjust my my expectations to match my persnickety house guests and our unique dysfunction.  Goodbye Waltons.  Hello my version of The Simpsons.  With expectations properly adjusted…

We change our response to the dysfunction.

Here’s the truth about thriving in any family: I can’t change any anyone else.  I learned by trial and error, much like Thomas Edison – I failed 10,000 times – trying to change my family members.  What did I learn?

I have to change my response to the dysfunction in my family.  And that means changing my response to people I cannot change – like my fussy relatives, who make mountains out of mole hills.  I once got so irritated that I had to go to a neighbor’s house to escape their fussiness. Now I’ve learned to observe their irritating dynamic, and not take it personally.  By seeing them in their context, I stay calmer in mine, while we’re all under the same roof.

As we begin to change our response to the dysfunction, we start thinking about what we can tolerate…

We set limits with our dysfunctional family members.

To truly thrive in any setting, you and I need to know our personal limits.  And this is doubly true in families, especially around the holidays.  We’ll experience our greatest personal freedom when we know what we will and will not tolerate.

We love these people, but we can only take so much of them.  (Just like they can only take so much of us).  Maybe we need to limit how much time we spend with certain family members.  Or limit what topics we talk about.  Or limit how we engage someone who’s three sheets to the wind. Or limit how long we’ll participate in a heated argument.  Or limit how much we’ll spend on Christmas gifts…

With our limits in place, it’s time set the proper holiday objective…

We change the focus of the holiday.  

Forget trying to have the perfect holiday.   Here’s a little formula to remember: (Dysfunctional Family + Holiday) DOES NOT EQUAL (Perfection).  But that’s okay, because perfection is an illusion. And you and I inhabit reality.  We need an attainable goal…

We need to focus on making the season enjoyable for our unique family.   You see, love can surely flow in a dysfunctional family.  And we can focus on doing what works best for the motley crew we love – using the resources we possess.

So that’s how I plan to thrive in my dysfunctional family this holiday:

  • Have a Reality Check
  • Adjust Expectations
  • Change My Response
  • Set Limits
  • Change My Focus.

Now, It’s your turn:

How will You handle Your dysfunctional family this holiday? Share your tips in the comments.

Merry Christmas, and Thrive!

If your Relationship With Yourself needs help, I encourage you to explore couples counseling

And if my words resonate with you, I invite you to contact me