My big, fat, dysfunctional family holiday

December 21, 2017

Based on countless stories I have heard about dysfunctional behavior in families, it seems like the vast majority of the problems involve boundaries—poor boundaries, rigid boundaries, no boundaries at all. This is colorfully exemplified in the story of a former client of mine, told here in her own words.

Ok, so here’s what went down over the last holiday, when my big, fat, dysfunctional family got together (better known as crazy-fest).

I arrived at the nursing home to see my mom. (My dad had already passed.) She was happy to see me and grinned from deaf ear to deaf ear. That cheerful scene lasted all of two minutes. Then, true to form, she slipped back into her old, familiar behavior of criticizing every little frickin’ thing about my life.

‘Have you gained weight? You look like you haven’t washed your hair. Is that the same outfit you wore the last time I saw you? Are you still single? You are never going to get a man unless you do something about your looks. When are you going to give me some grandchildren?’

And then, after all that haranguing, she had the naïveté to ask me, ‘Why do you look so down? You should smile more. I’m only trying to help.’

As if that wasn’t bad enough, in walk my five sisters. Yes, five—all younger and prettier! Immediately there was a shitstorm of activity and loud talking as my heavy-set sisters clamored into the room like a stampede of buffalo. I swear, I could feel the tile floor shaking beneath my feet.

As predicted, one of my sisters, the rebellious one, smelled of beer. (You probably already guessed that alcohol was going to enter the picture in this quaint, holiday story.) So, of course, she was the one talking the loudest. ‘Yeah, I’ve had a lot going on in my life. You won’t believe what’s been happening...’ She went on and on describing in detail all the mundane aspects of her directionless life as if she were onstage doing a grand performance.

The rest of the family sat quietly and listened, which only encouraged her to drone on with ever more trivial stories. I have been telling my family for years to stop feeding into her alcohol-fueled showboating. It’s just attention seeking. But, they don’t listen to me.

I understand that everyone, including myself, has idiosyncrasies and quirks. I get that. It’s just the disrespect that really gets me. Why my sister insists on coming to family events all sauced up and smelling like a brewery is something that I just don’t understand. I also don’t understand why my spineless family puts up with it. What gives?

The good news is there are several things one can do to maintain healthy boundaries with family. The first is to set reasonable boundaries in the first place, ones that are flexible and fair to everyone involved. Establish boundaries that show compassion to yourself and others.

Since there are problems in every family, let’s just focus on one of the problems illustrated in the above story. My former client could have shortened her visit, so there was less exposure to the maladaptive behavior she found so irritating. There is no law that says you have to spend the entire holiday with your family. It’s probably best to let everyone know ahead of time what your schedule is so there are no surprises when you leave.

Part of showing compassion to yourself and others involves respecting individual differences, personalities, and opinions. As long as they do not violate your rights, show some tolerance for those who see the world in a different light. If, on the other hand, they do violate your rights, stand up for yourself without violating theirs. After all, you don’t want to pick up their bad habits. In an argument turned ugly, for example, you can simply say, “I think this discussion has taken on a disrespectful tone.” Then walk away. Stay dignified and keep your serenity.

Today’s Loving Suggestion: One of the best ways to establish healthy boundaries with your family is to ask yourself how you would respond if your friends treated you the way your family does. What boundaries would you establish to maintain an environment of mutual respect?

Since we are all one global family, why spend all your holiday with your relatives? Why not share the season with other members of your global family? Try donating some time to a charitable organization that serves underprivileged people. Soup kitchens are usually open on holidays and are in need of your kind service.

Of course, you do not need to wait for a holiday to volunteer. You can show compassion any day of the year!

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