7 ways to make your family holiday gatherings free from gaslighting

Holiday gatherings bring out all manner of negative family dynamics.

Perhaps you have a relative whose perception of you does not match your perception of yourself and who is only too happy to tell you about it. Here are some comments patients in my therapy practice have heard:

“No kids? How nice that you were able to arrange your life without any real responsibilities.”

“I can’t believe someone put you in charge of something!”

“You’ve always been a couch potato.”

Or maybe there is a sibling who constantly accuses you of behaviors or attitudes that, even in the most charitable light, distort reality:

“We both know that you’ve never been very good with money.”

“You call yourself a good daughter. Well, good daughters visit their parents.”

“You’ve always prioritized your work over your family.”

If you are frequently defending yourself or feeling like you can never do the right thing when trying to enjoy the season of peace and goodwill with your family, you may be experiencing the effect of gaslighting.

Gaslighting is an insidious, sometimes covert, form of emotional abuse, repeated over time, that can happen in any type of relationship with a power dynamic. As depicted in the classic 1944 movieGaslight,” a gaslighter can lead a person to question their own memory, judgments, reality and, in extreme cases, their sanity.

To safeguard your emotional well-being and holiday cheer — and resist others’ attempts to gaslight you — follow these tips.

Give yourself permission to feel. Acknowledge how unpleasant it is when someone tells you that there is something wrong with the way you think or who you are.

Honor those feelings and set limits where you want them. For example, politely end a conversation if you feel attacked. Walk away or change the topic to something neutral: “Have you seen any good movies lately?”

Decide whether your conversation is a power struggle. Notice where the dialogue begins to pivot away from the main topic to blaming or shaming. When it does, opt out of the discussion.

Remember that you can’t control anyone’s opinion or what they say. But you can choose how (and whether) to respond. You might say, “Well, we are going to have to agree to disagree about that.” or “I hear you. You feel strongly about that. I don’t agree.”

When a relative is asking you to agree that you have never made a good decision — a classic gaslighting move — think about what might be going on with them. Could it be that they love you and are feeling out of control? Do they do this when you disagree with them or when you take more of a risk than they think is safe?

Reappraising a situation can help you see it in a more positive light. You might say, “I know you don’t agree. I think you are worried about me. I appreciate your concern, and I will take good care of myself.”

Tune out mean-spiritedness

Never listen to criticism that is primarily intended to wound, even if it contains more than a grain of truth. Give yourself permission to step away for a time if it feels too toxic.

Do something different in the moment, even if it’s hard to turn your attention away. It will bring you relief and maybe even a feeling of empowerment. You can say, “This doesn’t feel like holiday talk. I am going say hi to a few other people.”

If you are willing to talk about the gaslighting dynamic with the gaslighter and feel safe doing so, ask them when they have time to chat. The best time is when you both won’t be interrupted or have an audience.

Remember your power to regulate your emotions — take deep breaths, give yourself a pep talk, turn away — and only engage when you are able to keep your cool. Rather than accuse your gaslighter, describe your feelings calmly and explain the impact of their words. If your timing and tone are right, this can open a positive discussion.

Be mindful of conversations you initiate, and set personal limits with your gaslighting family member.

You can’t pick your family members, but you can choose to spend the bulk of your holidays with people who treat you and your boundaries with respect.

You may sometimes feel that you need your gaslighting family member to approve of you and the way you see things. That’s normal. But you can begin to talk back to the “I need my gaslighter’s approval” voice nagging at you and remind yourself to value your own counsel. That’s how you stand in your integrity.

A final tip: Surround yourself with people who lift you up, in whose presence you feel loved and whose positivity is contagious.

Robin Stern, PhD, is the co-founder and senior adviser to the director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, a psychoanalyst in private practice, the author of “The Gaslight Effect Recovery Guide” and the host of The Gaslight Effect Podcast.

We welcome your comments on this column at [email protected].

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