A stranger or even a friend makes the same remark to you as a family member. But it’s your family member’s words that sting the most. Somehow our family has a way of pushing our buttons—and that’s because they installed them. Our family also triggers us so intensely because of regression, said therapist Britt Frank. Regression, she said, is returning to a less developed state.
In other words, we become kids—especially when our family treats us like we’re kids. We storm out. We feel small. We throw a tantrum. Our emotions become so big, so acute we can’t control them.
“In order to cope with triggers during the holiday, the number one intervention I use with my clients is to actively observe when we are starting to regress,” said Frank, LSCSW, who has a private practice in Kansas City. “The simple act of observation and then adjusting our self-talk can help reverse regression and bring us back to a state of mind where we are powerful, in control, and can maintain boundaries despite the environmental triggers.”
For instance, instead of telling yourself “What’s wrong with me?” or “I’m a terrible person” or “I can’t control myself,” you say, “I have choices” or “I’m a capable adult” or “This is a difficult time, and I’m doing the best I can” or “I can do this,” she said.
Frank suggested these additional tips for navigating or preventing potentially triggering situations during the holidays (and really beyond):
- Take frequent breaks. Take as many time-outs as you need to help you breathe, get grounded and regain your composure. Take as many time-outs as you need to remind yourself that you’re a strong, capable and worthy adult. These time-outs might be 5-minute bathroom breaks or a walk around the block. It’s up to you. Remember, you’re in charge of what supports and serves you.
- Be willing to disappoint people. “Say yes when you mean yes and no when you mean no,” Frank said. “As much as possible, manage your resentment levels by not overextending yourself.” Rethink the way you do the holidays (or everything): Do you really want to make everything from scratch? Do you really want to have elaborate decorations? Do you really want to cook for 5 hours? Maybe you don’t. Or maybe you do. But if you do, be sure that it doesn’t stem from obligation or a deep-seated should but a pure desire, which stems from you.
- Don’t engage in hostility. If a family member comments on your weight or on what you’re eating, feel free to say nothing, Frank said. “It can be incredibly empowering to look at the person delivering the remark and not feel the need to justify yourself.” Or you might say “Ouch,” which is a simple and quick way to shut down the conversation, she said.
- Limit social media. “No one is posting about how they are terrified of facing down a table of pies, or feeling devastated by their family members’ cutting remarks,” Frank said. Seeing perfect, happy (and often filtered) images only makes us feel worse. Again, remember you have choices, and you can choose to focus on what supports you.
Ultimately, when a family member triggers you, the best thing you can do is to honor yourself and refocus on your needs. What do you need in the moment that will serve you? Maybe that’s telling the person that you don’t appreciate their comments and you request they stop. Maybe that means leaving the room. Maybe it means having an honest one-on-one conversation on a different day, and asking them where their remarks are really coming from. Whatever you decide to do, start and end with self-compassion.