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Ask Polly: How Do I Deal With My Crazy Family Over the Holidays?

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Dear Polly,

I’m heading back home Friday to spend two weeks with my family and I’m a little terrified. I’m very excited to see my sister, who is my best friend, and my youngest brother, who is 14 and a delight! I’m a little nervous about my other younger brother, who is hilarious and great but who I suspect doesn’t like me that much (can’t blame him, I was a garbage teen and we’re only a year apart, but I have changed). I’m trepidatious about seeing my father, who is great, but whom I rely on a lot financially and I feel terrible about it (he never makes me feel bad about it, but UGH I’M AN ADULT, I shouldn’t be relying on him so much and he works so hard and ugh). But I’m full-on terrified of seeing my mother.

My mother and I have always had a contentious relationship. I let her opinion of me mean way too much to me, and always have. I’ve armchair diagnosed her with borderline personality disorder (based on my therapist’s thoughts and my own reading, which I know makes me sound like a millennial trashbag but it really fits?). She is sensitive and cruel and makes every issue in anyone’s life about her. She is emotionally abusive to my sister and me.

When she’s okay, she’s great! She’s fun, and smart, and generous, and will see five movies in a week with me. When she’s not, it’s bad. At Thanksgiving, I didn’t help my high-school brother with his homework and in response I got a 20-minute, very calm explanation of why I’m wasting my career and talents, am a lazy, terrible person who will regret every choice I’ve ever made and should be embarrassed to be living my life the way I am. I’m a contract attorney in Dallas, looking for a full-time position, but doing okay all things considered! But the second she gives those lectures, I instantly believe it. I’ve struggled my whole life with depression and anxiety and it kicks into full gear in a scary, self-harm-y way when I am faced with her criticism.

Intellectually, I understand. Her criticism is not about me. It would be the same no matter what I was doing with my life. There’s nothing I can do to change it, so I shouldn’t take it to heart. Emotionally, I’ve never been able to get there. She gets very anxious around holidays, and that anxiety makes her lash out at us, and I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to burden my friends, again, for the bajillionth time, with me drunk-sobbing at 4 a.m. about how she’s right and I don’t deserve to take up space on the planet.

Dispirit of Christmas

Dear Dispirit of Christmas,

Sweet Christ in a manger, do I understand! The holidays are heralded as a time of love and warmth and celebration, yet even when you feel calm and optimistic and absolutely turgid with the holiday spirit, every last ounce of joy can be snuffed out upon returning to the fold.

What blows my mind is that every single Christmas, I fly home assuming that last year’s holiday meltdowns were a fluke. Everyone will embrace and clink red wine glasses and laugh — haw haw haw! — about how silly we were the year before. But that’s never how it goes.

First of all, even if I’m in a great state of mind when I first get to town, I tend to sink into a mysterious funk within days. Even if I’m exercising every single morning (crucial to surviving home visits!) and being extra helpful around the house (never, ever slack off!) and going with the flow and being extra agreeable and powering down all of my usual strong opinions (note to self: Keep fat mouth shut!), something in the air messes with my state of mind. Sooner or later, I say the wrong thing. My mom gets all weird and flinty. My sister rolls her eyes and snaps at me. My brother withdraws. What the fuck is happening? What decade is this? Where am I?

It took a long time to notice how my mother’s anxiety and mine formed the perfect storm. In the past, I would try to “solve” the problem. For a while, I tried challenging her. That was a disaster. After that, I withdrew. That didn’t work; everyone expected me to glue everything together socially, and they all got sullen when I didn’t fulfill that role. Next, I was incredibly sincere and vulnerable and I used “I” statements to express my feelings. Guess what? My family hates that shit.

I don’t know how it happens, but year after a year, our initially lighthearted reunion transforms into this intense, complicated puzzle formed by decades of unspoken resentments and confusion and harsh judgments. It’s like being at a great party that suddenly turns into a group therapy session, except there’s no therapist there, only angry, mixed-up people who’ve been frustrating the hell out of each other for close to half a century.

Obviously, we aren’t very quick learners in my family. But here’s one lesson I have learned, and you might not like it: Looking for comfort and reassurance from your mildly dysfunctional family of origin is usually a mistake. I know that goes against every ideal in the book. But when sensitive people show up and expect their gently damaged families to shower them with love, there’s nothing but disappointment in store for them. As long as you have some unresolved issues of your own (and who doesn’t?) and you’re looking for unconditional love from people who are just as confused and unhinged by family life as you are, you’re essentially putting your hand straight into the flame and then freaking out when you get burned.

With depression and anxiety and self-harming in the mix, going back into the lion’s den with your extremely difficult mother is not a small thing. But instead of showing up and fearing attacks but secretly hoping for love and support, you have to be (1) prepared to take care of yourself, (2) prepared to suffer anyway, and (3) prepared to serve the common good.

Here’s how you take care of yourself: You exercise vigorously every single day, first thing. You call friends on the phone (at a reasonable hour) to talk about how things are going so far, whether you’re in crisis mode or not. You run errands by yourself (rent a car!). You write in your journal. You back away from conflicts instead of engaging. You retreat to your room when things turn ugly. You get plenty of sleep. You don’t drink too much.

If you’re doing all of these things, why should you also be prepared to suffer? Because you will suffer, no matter what. You. Will. Suffer. Even if your mother manages her emotions, someone else won’t. Dysfunction abhors a vacuum. Even if things are light and breezy for a while, one tiny thing will go wrong and someone will react badly and it will be intense and upsetting, because no one has the skills they need to talk it out openly. If you know nothing else, know this: You are not in control of the outcome. You are not the source of all the trouble, even if someone tells you that you are. You are one faulty part in a giant, half-broken, outdated machine. Accept it.

Now, why should you be prepared to serve the common good? Because this is the realistic, adaptive, self-protective behavior of a mature adult. Instead of focusing on your own drama, you should focus on helping others. Because, look, part of you still believes that you might be able to right the wrongs of the past. The Jekyll-and-Hyde mother is tricky for this reason; her good days fool you into believing that you might be able to shake her out of her irrational attacking state. Listen to me: Your mother will never change. Going home for the holidays is not about “fixing” her or the past. It’s about tolerating the freaks you grew up with, making them dinner, giving them your unconditional love, and keeping your mouth shut. Realizing this might seem to serve them, but trust me, it serves you the most, by keeping you safer from heartbreak.

So help with the homework. Go out and buy some groceries. Do the dishes. Pour the wine. Listen. Laugh. Do the dishes again. Listen some more. Don’t expect to be in the best mood as you do these things. Do them anyway.

I also think you should accept how your mother really sees you. You say that nothing she says is personal. I don’t know about that. I think her comments have an undercurrent of the truth to them, and that’s why they get under your skin so much. You aren’t living the way she wants you to live, and for some reason she lets off stress by saying this — in the most hurtful, personal, demeaning terms possible.

I know that’s beyond crushing. But telling yourself that it has nothing to do with you isn’t working. So accept the truth instead: Your choices, your personality, your way of moving through the world — these things sometimes get on your mother’s nerves.

That’s the truth. So why doesn’t she just say that? Why doesn’t she just say, “Man, you annoy me”? Instead, she swings from one extreme to the other: You’re perfect and she also hates your guts. You’re amazing and you’re also just SICK AND WRONG AND FUCKED. Notice that these are also the extreme ways you view yourself, when you’re good and when you’re upset. She trained you to traffic in these extremes, and now you do it without her. No wonder you’re severely debilitated when your Self-Hatred Coach is around.

So know this for yourself: You will never be perfect and amazing. That’s okay. No one is! And you aren’t even close to sick and wrong and fucked. What you are is a human being, and the fact that you’re human gets on your mother’s nerves. She was hoping for perfect. You know why? Because she’s always hoping for perfect from herself. She hates herself for falling short of perfect, so she hates you for it, too. She knows you see her clearly, and that makes it even worse.

You have to translate your mother’s ire into milder terms, since she can’t do it for you. When she gets pissed, don’t tell yourself “She hates me!” and then “This has NOTHING to do with me.” That won’t feel true. Translate her anger as “I get on her nerves. Sometimes she doesn’t like me all that much. That feeling makes her hate herself. It’s not the end of the world.”

Maybe she doesn’t want your dad sending you money. Maybe she wants you to generously help around the house and be the perfect big sister to your brothers while you’re home. That’s a tall order. You’re trying to find a full-time job. You’re trying to be nice and helpful. But being home depresses you, and you’re pretty angry at her on top of that. She makes you feel like shit about yourself. I don’t think you can keep yourself from feeling those feelings. Being home makes you vulnerable. You will feel what you feel.

Just don’t panic. Remember that you’re doing just fine no matter what she says. Write down a little prayer about what you believe in and the enormous progress you’ve made, and repeat it to yourself when the mood turns dark. When your mother explodes, leave the room and come back later. Go for a walk and talk to yourself. Make a list for yourself: These are the things I’ll do to keep myself safe. These are the things I’ll do when I’m feeling bad.

I know it hurts. And plenty of people would tell you to never visit an emotionally abusive mother. Plenty of people would say you should be authentic and tell your family how you feel. I guess it depends on how many experiments in fear and self-loathing you can tolerate. For me, accepting that I won’t get all of my needs met works a lot better.

I need to know, going in, that I will feel sad and disappointed at some point. There are just too many unspoken emotions in the mix for that not to happen. And I am going to eat some shit, no matter what. I always do!

That’s just the way it is. Families are not perfect little democratic societies. Families are complicated and many family members are patently nuts. I love my family, though. Even when I’m feasting on their platters of shit, I know that we’re all damaged in different ways. We’re all rusty parts in the same broken-down machine. I will never give up on those damaged freaks. I love them, even when they piss me off and I have to run four miles in the cold, muttering to myself about what assholes they can be sometimes.

My guess is that you feel the same way about your family. I know the emotional abuse is beyond the pale. You’re in therapy and you’re dealing with it. But it sounds like you want to try to spend the holidays with them. You want to try to tolerate them and take care of yourself as best you can. So try. Don’t make your childhood home the battleground for whatever you’re working through. Wake up in the morning and forgive them all over again. Forgive those damaged freaks. Forgive them and eat their shit and give them love in return.

They are deeply flawed, but they do love you. They don’t know how to show it, the dummies. They’re confused. Forgive them. Give them your love.


Order Heather Havrilesky’s new book, What If This Were Enough, here. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday. Got a question? Email

Ask Polly: How Do I Deal With My Crazy Family?