If you’re reading this, the chances are that you are like me and don’t have contact with a parent, or possibly other family member. If there is one thing that anyone who has chosen to be estranged from a relative knows, its that Christmas time can be tough – whether that is because you’re struggling with your choice, saddened by the constant happy family narrative in the media or you’re having to deal with everyone trying to play Olivia Pope and fix your broken relationship, there is invariably something. With that in mind, I thought I would share some of my thoughts around how to cope with estrangement during the holidays.
Dealing with comments about your estrangement during the holidays.
I have a had a few experiences with comments about my estrangement from my mother, and as I said before, they always seem to ramp up during the Christmas period. For me, they take a few different formats:
- The guilt trip
- The aggressor
- The subtle/patronising/dismissive
Everyone is likely to find one of these people more difficult to deal with – whether it is a family member, friend of the family (or worse, one of your friends who has blindsighted you) or a person who you don’t know at all, everyone seems to have an opinion. Here are a few examples of what these might look like:
- “But darling, please, you need to call your mum, it’s Christmas, she is so alone and upset, just be the bigger person and reach out!”
- “I know you don’t want to hear it, but her health is declining. You might not get another Christmas, do you want that?”
- “Everyone deserves forgiveness, it’s the spirit of Christmas.”
- “You can’t leave someone alone at this time of year? Gosh, think how sad she/he must be watching all the Christmas adverts with loving family and you won’t even try to reach out.”
- “I saw him, gosh he’s really struggling to get out and about now… I couldn’t do that to my parent, I know they were awful but…”
- “I think you’re wicked, how could you?”
- “You need to get over it and stop being so selfish/spoiled/insert derogatory name here.”
- “God you really are cold hearted aren’t you? I hope you’re ashamed of yourself.”
- “Wait until it’s your turn and your child has chosen to ditch you! I hope you get to learn what this feels like!”
- “So you’re really not going to get in touch? Not even a card? Wow, you’re a terrible person.”
- “Well I think what you’re doing is disgusting.”
- “YOU are ruining this family!”
- “Have you heard from your mum? Oh… Do you think you might reach out now it’s Christmas? No… that’s a shame…”
- “I saw him in Tesco… yeah… would you consider checking in?”
- “How’s your mum? Ohhh are we still on that nonsense? Goodness me I thought that would have passed by now!”
- “I went through a phase when I was younger of being really angry with my parents too… thing is you have to grow out of it.”
You’re probably more than familiar with a few of these but the crux comes with how to deal with them? Of course, you’re always able to say tell someone to shove it, you’re absolutely not obliged to be polite, kind or respectful if they aren’t able to offer you the same courtesy, but what happens when these moments arise at a social event and you don’t want the drama? What happens when you know the potential is there for this to ruin an otherwise great relationship and YOU don’t want that? Here are a few of the things I do:
- Set a boundary – this can look like “I appreciate you are coming at this from a good place, but I’m not prepared to discuss it with you.” – It’s non-confrontational, it simply says no.
- Plan ahead if you know you’re likely to be faced with these kinds of comments at a family function etc by letting a loved one know that you’re anxious or you may want to leave early.
- Agree and deflect – it’s really hard to argue with or be aggressive with someone who simply agrees with you. “You’re right, that is sad to think they are alone at Christmas, I hope they find peace. Anyway, how are the kids?” or “I know you think I’m cold hearted Uncle Jeff. Aunty Shelia said that you were going to France later in the year, is it going to be a ski trip?”
- Avoid the temptation to defend yourself – If necessary, you can agree (or if that isn’t applicable, simply say “I know you feel that way”) and deflect, then loop back to setting a boundary if the person persists. Don’t get into the pit of defending yourself or offering “reasons” because it never works. She beat me? You’re a liar/didn’t happen. He screamed at me daily and has traumatised me? Be grateful you didn’t have it worse, some people did. They can’t respect my boundaries? Pathetic. If there is one thing you will never find helpful in these scenarios, I assure you it is trying to defend yourself.
Dealing with the loss of estrangement at Christmas
This won’t be relevant for everyone, I’m sure, but I get a lot of people messaging me to ask for advice because they feel an overwhelming sense of sadness or guilt. Guilt is sometimes a result of toxic shame, a common experience/trait in adult children who have been raised by emotionally abusive parents. It’s really common for these feelings to increase at this time of year – be it because you feel saddened you feel weren’t enough and you will never have the picture perfect family we’re sold by the media, or whether it’s a crippling guilt that you have done the unthinkable and put yourself first.
I talk a lot online about estrangement, I’m working through my own experiences, coming to terms with CPTSD, healing myself and working through it in therapy. I know that I have done the right thing for myself and my family by stepping away from my mum, and I really couldn’t have changed the position I am in now with the hands I was dealt. That doesn’t mean I don’t think of her. That doesn’t mean I don’t feel a deep sadness or sense of loneliness when faced with the reality that that choice to protect myself has created for me. I often get asked how I deal with extended family at events or siblings getting involved – yet I don’t have that experience because I don’t have those people. It is me, and the little family I have created. So do I mourn the loss of what I wish my childhood and adult relationship with a parent could have been? Sometimes. Do I sometimes really just long for that big mum hug that we see on tv or you see friends getting from their parents? Of course. It’s ok to be sad or angry with the cards you’ve been dealt, but it’s not ok to allow it to consume you, because you deserve better than that.
Here are a few of the ways I deal with my emotions, these may not be useful for you, but I hope they are:
- Therapy – a big one, and especially handy as we’re coming up to this period, but not always an easy thing to access. If you can’t speak to a professional at the moment and you don’t feel able to speak to a trusted friend or partner, I strongly recommend seeking out professionals online to follow and learn from such as Liberation Helen, Dr Nicole LePera and Katie McKenna.
- Journalling – it does help, promise. You can find journals specifically for gratitude too which can help to change your perspective.
- Self help books & learning – something I have found fundamental in helping myself to heal has been reading self help books, listening to podcasts about estrangement/toxic family and learning more about my life experiences. It’s isolating and I’ve found comfort in knowing I’m not alone.
- Writing – similar to journaling, but writing my memories and experiences down has been really useful and cathartic for me. There is something about getting it OUT.
Creating new traditions
I think we, as a society, are pretty hung up on the concept of having a few traditions under our belts when it comes to Christmas, but sometimes when you’ve had a difficult childhood, it’s not really possible.
For me, a great way to move through the holiday season when you’re estranged is to create your own new traditions. It doesn’t have to be big, it doesn’t even need to involve anyone else, but it is something that matters to you and hopefully brings you a little joy.