Dear Therapist: I need holiday help dealing with a toxic family member (Opinion)

Dear Therapist: I love the holidays but also dread them. The dread is because of a toxic family member who has criticized and demeaned me my whole life. Whenever I ask them to stop, they turn it around and make me the bad guy for hurting their feelings or being too sensitive. We host a big family gathering every year and this year I really don’t want to invite them. But, I’m scared they would try to turn others against me since that’s what they did to another family member who cut them off. l also would feel guilty for causing family drama and keeping them from seeing my kids. If I do invite them, I feel like I’m letting myself down and being weak.

Dear Holiday Hard Place: This is tough. When you are dealing with a person who is disrespectful and verbally abusive and who reacts to boundaries with bullying and gaslighting, it can cause you to feel trapped with no good options. If you set the boundary and don’t invite them, you’re in trouble and if you don’t set the boundary and do invite them, you’re in trouble.

In these situations, the first step is to recognize this as a no-win setup and to offload your sense of responsibility to get the decision ‘right’. One thing that can happen when dealing with people who behave poorly and then don’t take responsibility for their behaviors is that we begin to carry the load of responsibility for them. But it’s not on you to make this situation go smoothly.

None of this is about you causing drama or withholding your kids or you being weak. Your decision to invite them or not invite them isn’t the problem here. The problem is their behaviors and they will probably behave badly no matter what you do. You can’t control that. Whatever you decide, you deserve compassion not judgment.

As you work to liberate yourself from the guilt and self-judgment around the decision, you can move toward figuring out which is a less worse choice for you. Would you rather deal with the stress of having them at the party or the stress of not inviting them? You can also consider your values. What kind of person do I want to be in this situation? What do I want to model for my kids? Just be careful to not let this ensnare you in more self-judgment or guilt.

Lastly, why not seek support from your loved ones (sounds like you’re not alone in having issues with this person)? You don’t have to be alone in it, regardless of what you decide.

For example, if you do invite them to the party, what helps protect you from their behaviors? Can you have another family member be your support buddy at the party? If you decide to not invite them, what do you need to follow through with holding the boundary? Do you need help to make a plan for how to tell them and how to talk to other family members about your decision? Do you need encouragement, space to vent and/or distraction when you’re feeling wobbly about it all?

It’s wonderful that you’ve held on to your love for the holidays despite the stress and distress of dealing with this person. I have no doubt that as you release yourself from the pressure of getting any of this ‘right’ or preventing their bad behaviors, and focus on what you need to feel safer and more comfortable, you will have even more space this season for joy and celebration.

Danielle B. Grossman, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, has worked with clients in the Truckee/Tahoe community for 20 years. She helps individuals and couples with their relationships, anxiety, grief, struggles with food and addiction. Reach out at [email protected] or learn more at

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