ADVICE: I hate family gatherings

Getting together with family can be full of disappointment and a stressful reminder of unresolved issues and past conflicts.

Maja Begovic 4 minute read October 8, 2021
two men talking from separate mountains

Gathering with family can bring up unresolved issues that cause feelings of stress and anxiety. GETTY

Dear Asking For a Friend,

It’s Thanksgiving, and I am filled with dread. Why do I hate family gatherings so irritating and emotional?

Signed, Triggered

Dear Triggered,

If you dread family events, you’re not alone. Gathering with relatives can bring up unpleasant memories, reignite sibling rivalry and highlight unresolved conflict and past resentments. And the more you replay old stories and relive old dynamics, the more  stuck and angry.

While there’s no question that breaking bread with loved ones can be stressful, it can also be an opportunity to work through old patterns, transform relationships, and forge new experiences. If you’re willing to step outside of your comfort zone and shift your perspective, you might be able to find meaningful moments of connection. But first, you’re going to have to let go of any hopes or notions of how you want things to play out.

“In an ideal world, families provide a safe haven for us — a place where all of our cares and concerns will be taken care of,” explains Joseph Eliezer, registered psychotherapist, clinical counsellor and author. “However, families seldom live up to our expectations.”

The expectations stem from our own needs, according to experts, and when they fall out of line with reality, it can fuel conflict and resentment, leaving us feeling frustrated, disappointed and unhappy.

“There’s no such thing as a life without anxiety or difficulty,”says Eliezer. “For many of us, being with family brings unresolved conflict to the surface, and as a result, we may enter family situations feeling vulnerable, and more easily impacted by other’s behaviours.”

One of the best ways to regulate strong emotions is to simply observe them, reflect upon them, and allow them to pass without acting on them. You may find that if you can get those emotions to dissolve, your energy will change, and give way to some calm and clarity.

Old resentments may also be holding you back from enjoying time with your family. Feeling angry, bitter or even vengeful about something that happened in the past can cloud your judgment and perception, and negatively impact your health. In fact, one study found that adults who hold on to anger and hostility experience greater cognitive decline than those who choose to forgive — so there’s actually science behind the importance of letting bad feelings go. You don’t have to force forgiveness, but you can choose to move on.

Be prepared 
To prevent feeling triggered at family gatherings, Eliezer says that it helps to have an inner toolkit to be used as needed.

When things get uncomfortable, he recommends consciously choosing in advance who you’d like to spend time with, and deciding not to engage in conversations that make you feel uneasy. Monitor how you feel and if the inner tension rises, deep breathing exercises can help. You can also excuse yourself and step outside for some calming fresh air.

He also suggests reminding yourself that this event with family will pass, and that you get stronger every time you live through it.

Then again, you can just … not
There is one caveat though — if your family is abusive or toxic, you may want to reconsider putting yourself through the angst, anxiety and pain of returning to an environment that is unhealthy for you.

“It is important to remember that you have a choice in where you go and with whom you spend your time,” Amy Sedgwick, a drug and alcohol abuse counsellor, told Bustle. “Family gatherings can feel obligatory but the only true obligation you have is to yourself.”

And in case you aren’t sure how bad family gatherings are for you, there are warning signs, according to Dr. Gary Brown, a licensed marriage and family therapist, including: if you live in dread of seeing your family, there is a history of unpleasant family gatherings, you experience anxiety or trouble sleeping when you think about spending time with your family, or you downplay how bad it is to others.

“You really shouldn’t be in a situation where you are being chronically abused, mistreated, ridiculed, judged, and the blunt of your family’s cruelty,” he tells Bustle. “Being insulted and diminished on a routine basis is simply not healthy and your understandable need to avoid your toxic family may very well be the most healing thing you can do for yourself.”

So, yes, it’s okay to give yourself permission to skip the get-together if it hurts too much — as Brown puts it: “Sometimes it’s really better to be alone than subject yourself to being abused.”

But if what you are experiencing is more low-level irritation and annoyance, the most important thing you can do is remember that no one’s family is perfect. Happy Thanksgiving.

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