Navigating the Triggers of a Dysfunctional Family

Many sensitive, caring people need to take it slowly with family get-togethers as they can often feel too much from them. There may be more noise, drinking, and loud voices than they can tolerate.

Families are living organisms. The health and behavior of its members contribute to its overall wellness. In a healthy family, you learn to identify your needs and feelings; you receive consistent, loving messages from your parents; and your authenticity is valued. A dysfunctional family lacks clear boundaries. Shaming and blaming occur. One family member may become a scapegoat, communication is poor, and parents may be struggling with substance abuse or their own emotional distress or trauma.

If you come from a dysfunctional family, it’s wise to accept the limitations of each of the members and lower your expectations. Setting polite but clear boundaries with toxic behavior stops you from becoming a doormat. Also recognize how your relatives emotionally trigger you. Acknowledge that these emotional triggers can shine light on your wounds so you can heal them. Healing your triggers is liberating because you won’t be thrown off or drained by people’s inappropriate comments. They may still be annoying, but they won’t have the power to zap you. For instance, when someone criticizes your choices, see this as a chance to set healthy boundaries and examine the tender areas within where your self-esteem may be fragile. Or if someone throws you crumbs of love, it’s powerful to say, “I deserve so much more.”

Once you can recognize your emotional triggers then at family gatherings you can choose how to respond in a calm, neutral way. If someone tries to lure you into a negative interaction such as pitting you against your sister, simply refuse to get hooked. You may be unable to control your family, but you can take charge of your behavior. This emotional freedom liberates you from dysfunctional families and negative thoughts.

Here are five tips from my book Thriving as an Empath: 365 Days of Self-Care for Sensitive People to help all sensitive souls take special care of themselves during the holidays.

  • If you decide to join family and friends for good food, comradery, and laughter, sit next to someone you like and take a few short rest breaks to center yourself.
  • If you prefer being with a small group of friends rather than attending larger gatherings and feel more comfortable with just one or a few people, honor that need.
  • Practice saying a loving “no” to invitations or limit the time you socialize so you don’t feel trapped.
  • Choose quiet “sensory friendly” activities such as a concert or a museum.
  • Stay at home, watch a movie, cuddle with your partner or animals, meditate, cook a delicious meal, listen to music, or simply rest.

Set your intention. I will not allow myself to get emotionally drawn into my family’s dysfunctional dynamics. I will set clear boundaries with relatives. It is not my job to fix my family. I will acknowledge how I have freed myself from negative relationships, emotional patterns, or situations of hardship. I will be happy with my progress.

Comments

Advertisement

Keep updated with Spirit Library

Author Information

Dr. Judith Orloff

Judith Orloff, MD is author of The Empath's Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People, upon which her articles are based. Dr. Orloff is a psychiatrist, an empath, and is on the UCLA Psychiatric Clinical Faculty.

Books from Dr. Judith Orloff

Advertisement

Dr. Judith Orloff Archives