Are You Dreading Heading Home For The Holidays?

Going home to Los Angeles

How To Deal With the Toxic People In Your Life

When you go home for the holidays, will you have to deal with someone who tries to manipulate and shame you? Many of us have people in our families who have an automatic way of interacting with the world that involves trying to manipulate those around them— they shame us, put us down, or just ignore us as if we don’t matter. They learned these patterns of behavior when they were very young, and now it’s automatic. It’s not meant to be malicious, but it can destroy your self-confidence nonetheless.

In my last blog I talked about how to calm yourself down when you start to spin out. This skill is very helpful whenever you find yourself getting triggered by a specific situation or person. But what if calming down your nervous system isn’t enough? What if the person who triggers you is truly toxic? You will need a plan for how to deal with them once you are calmed down. Here is a 5-step plan for how to deal with the toxic people in your life.

1. Know yourself

mom ignoring daughter in Los Angeles

Spend some time evaluating your own triggers. What kinds of situations give you that anxious feeling? Is there a pattern? Some common patterns I see in my therapy practice are

·      Being yelled at

·      Being ignored

·      Comments about your looks

·      Comments about your future

·      Being compared to someone else

·      Comments about your partner

If you aren’t sure what your triggers are, spend some time figuring them out, so that you can plan ahead for potentially difficult situations. Identify where you first feel anxiety in your body—is it a tightness in your throat, a pounding in your head, a punch in the gut, or somewhere else?

Notice when you feel these sensations in your everyday life, and make a note of it. Keep a list on your phone. Once you have a few incidents on your list, you can evaluate to see if there’s a pattern, and you can identify your “triggers”.

2.Plan Ahead

Now that you know your triggers, the next step is to anticipate when you will be triggered at home over the holidays. If you are like many people, you will feel triggered the minute you walk through the front door! When I go home for the holidays, I go immediately to the kitchen and open the frig. Why? That’s where the love is in my house. All while I was growing up I learned that food=love (and don’t even get me started about money!) and the minute I am in my childhood home I respond to the old cues like Pavlov’s dogs.

3.Learn Calming Techniques

deep breathing on Venice Beach

Practice deep diaphragmatic breathing; it’s simple, easy, and you can do it anywhere! Simply put one hand on your belly, and breathe in slowly and deeply into the bottom of your lungs so that your hand actually moves outward. This will expand the lungs so that your diaphragm presses against your vagus nerve and activates the parasympathetic nervous system—the one that calms you down.

You can also practice grounding techniques like these:

° Look slowly around the room and describe (in your head) every little detail you see. Start at one point and move slowly around until you come back to the original point.

° The 5 Senses Exercize

Look around you and identify 5 things you see, 4 things you hear, 3 things you can touch (and touch them!), 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste. Immerse yourself in each of these senses as you experience them. Describe them in as much detail as possible to yourself.

° Count the colors

This exercise is courtesy of a client of mine, and I think it’s brilliant because it’s grounding in the present, and also involves counting, which is additionally soothing to many people.

Pick a color you like, and count all the places you see it around you.

Click here for more information and self-calming techniques.

4.Practice your responses

Now that you’ve done the preparation, it’s time to plan how you are going to respond to the toxic person in your life.

 It’s all about boundaries.

holding your boundaries with your mom

Toxic people have no boundaries, so your own boundaries have to be particularly strong. When they start to trigger you, use your favorite calming techniques. This will give you time to take a beat and step back from the situation, so you can implement your plan. Here are some of the techniques you can use to hold your boundaries:

°Deflect/Ignore – Just don’t respond directly to the question or whatever has provoked you, instead talk about whatever you want to talk about. You’ll be surprised at the response. Toxic people aren’t saying things to actually hear your response, they just want to get your goat. They may try again a few times, but eventually they will move on to another annoying topic, or they will give up and try again later. Maybe they will pout—but that’s their problem, not yours!

°Be Direct — “I don’t want to talk about that right now.”

Do not attack (e.g. “That’s an awful thing to say”, because you can’t win that argument and you will just be more frustrated as they continue to deny what you know is true.

 Do not defend (e.g. “I am not doing….”, because now you are stuck arguing about something that you didn’t want to discuss in the first place.) The minute you get defensive you have been sucked into their vortex.

 °Escape – This is pretty simple. Just leave. Plan a safe place beforehand to retreat to. Maybe it’s a guest bedroom where you can go to “take a quick nap”, or maybe you can just leave the house and go for a walk.

 °Support – It’s always a good idea to have someone at these gatherings that you know is on your side. Talk to them ahead of time about how they can help you hold your boundaries when you are being “attacked”. Maybe they can even call you over to talk to them if they see you are getting flooded and having difficulty responding in the way you’d like to do.

 REMEMBER: The way to maintain your boundaries is to know that whatever you are doing or saying is okay, regardless of how someone else tries to shame you.

 You don’t have to react to anyone, because you don’t care what they think about what you are doing.

 Now obviously, if the toxic person in question is your mom, or your favorite grandpa, etc. then you DO care what they think; you can’t change that! But the truth is, though you can’t change what they think or say, you are allowed to believe and do what you want, even if you decide later it’s a mistake.

Let me say that again. It doesn’t matter who’s right and who’s wrong; you still get to be yourself and make your own decisions (and your own mistakes!) No one gets to shame you for your choices. Their inability to tolerate your differences of opinion is their issue to deal with, not yours.

5.Reward yourself!

give yourself some credit in Los Angeles

Whatever progress you make on holding your boundaries is a victory! This is your family, so you are playing the long game. Changing the way we think and behave in our family of origin is one of the hardest things for anyone to do, so give yourself credit for even trying!

Plan something nice for yourself when this is all over (or even in the middle of the visit, if you can!) Choose something you don’t normally do, so that it truly feels like a reward. Would that be a massage, a nice dinner out, concert tickets? Be creative.

Be easy on yourself for not getting this completely right the first time. If you yell back, or shrink away ashamed—Congratulations, you’re human! As they say in the 12-step programs, “Progress, not Perfection”!

And always remember that progress is never a straight line!

Most of the time progress is two steps forward, one step backward. And sometimes it feels like ALL the steps are backward! Don’t worry, if you are able to make even the smallest step toward holding your own boundaries, you are changing the dynamic with the toxic person in your life.

Need Some Extra Help Negotiating Your Holidays With the Fam?

Home for the Holidays in Los Angeles

The damage to our self-image that comes from our relationship with our families runs very deep, and can be hard to negotiate on our own. Working with a therapist can help you understand more about why you feel the way you do, and can change how you see, feel and behave at home and in other volatile situations—or even in everyday situations where you feel frequently triggered. If you’d like to learn more about this, give me a call at 323-999-1537, or shoot me an email at, and get your free consultation about how therapy can help you!