Dear Holiday Dysfunction,
We are breaking up with you. We are writing new family stories this holiday season. We are not looking back at you with a single pang of guilt.
Don’t believe us? We’ve got the classic breakup lines ready to go.
“It’s not you, it’s me.”
“I need space.”
“I found someone else.”
“Let’s just be friends.”
Only, really, let’s not because that line always was doublespeak for “it would probably be best if we never saw each other again” anyway.
This post won’t be for everyone. But oh dear goodness, it will be for someone. It’s a salve for the sisters who need less silent treatment and more Silent Night. It’s a nod to those who secretly think “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” is a catchy little tune. It’s a lifeline for those who limp through the holidays, weary of family secrets or wary of family scorecards.
Anyone? It was never supposed to be this way. Just one generation away from the perfection of the garden, brother killed brother. The fall hit families hard.
Maybe this is the year you stop limping to January 1st, wondering how another Christmas season got sabotaged by the person who sucks all the oxygen out of the room and then blames you because they can’t breathe.
Here it is. An oxygen mask. Take it.
I see the look in your eyes, because I’ve seen the look in your eyes. I spoke to a group of women in the Phoenix area a year ago on having the courage to confront unhealthy family dynamics, and a common thread emerged during our Q & A. How do you unhook from family dysfunction? How do you love with boundaries? One woman choked back tears and pleaded, “How do you honor your father and mother when your father and mother hurt you?” I remember what she was wearing. I remember how she was standing. She was defeated and scared and sure she was doing this whole Christian thing wrong.
The holidays add all this extra barbed wire to family situations that are already hard. So, here’s a working list of ideas — some hard fought and some hard sought — to navigate the 12 Dysfunctional Days of Christmas.
1. Find a healthy zone. No sooner is your coat in the closet than you’re guilt-tripped for never coming around. Or you’re reeling from comments about your weight or your date. When the controlling looks, the guilt trips or the annual recitation of your life screw-ups begins, don’t take the bait. Proverbs 26:20 says, “For lack of wood the fire goes out.” Be gracious, maintain self-control and don’t add wood. But by all means, limit your exposure to the flame. How? Maybe this year you stay in a hotel room rather than the guest room. Or you spend four hours with the family instead of four days. Or maybe after all these years you finally say: My family is going skiing. Or to the movies. Or to Siberia. Oh snap. Be ready for pushback on that one, and then turn off your phone, rally your kiddos or your spouse or your friends, and just find the baby. No, you won’t ruin Christmas. If Herod couldn’t do it with power and resources and cunning, you won’t either. Hand your mess to the Messiah. He was born for this.
2. Stop taking responsibility. It’s a difficult thing to watch someone you love suffer in poor health, isolation, bad relationships or an unhealthy living environment. But one of the most piercing questions Jesus ever asked was “Do you want to get well?” He shifted responsibility right where it belonged. A hurting family member may manipulate, but you don’t have to capitulate.
3. Jilt the guilt. No one should be alone at the holidays. Right? Well, right? Here’s a really uncomfortable truth: Sometimes, people are alone for a reason. They weaponize emotion. Their hour of need is Every. Single. Hour. Their critical spirits crush you or they abuse scripture to burn you. When Jesus’ enemies — or the enemy — tried to trap Him that way, He just didn’t get all guilt-ridden and crushed. He listened to the right voice. He knew the Truth. It was in His heart. It was in His bones. The guilt you feel may be a gut check for codependency. Beth Moore writes, “Two in a pit is not better than one. Resist the draw to jump in it with them to pull them out. Throw in a rope instead and accept that you can’t make them grab it. We can test our level of codependency by how mad they get and how guilty we feel when we don’t get in the pit with them.”
4. Leave room for empathy. This boundary stuff is rough, especially at the holidays. It’s difficult to guard our hearts without hardening our hearts. I have a friend who calls this “building soft walls.” We can take such a sweet cue from Jesus. In His dealings with people who were hurting, He was tender and certain without being severe. Empathy keeps us from harshness. Is your loved one untreated for depression? Are they desperate to protect a secret or a system or an -ism? Are they terrified of abandonment or failing health or loss of independence? Is there unresolved trauma? Did their life break into a thousand pieces? Is their own mind working against them as they descend into mental illness? Without repealing numbers 2 or 3, start here in your prayers and operate from this softer place. Perform kind gestures and keep love active. “Love more, not less,” writes Bob Goff. “Will you take a hit? Of course you will. Do it anyway.”
5. Run hard into scripture. Unhooking from guilt trips, manipulation, controlling patterns or abuse requires more than a quick scripture of the day. If you read long and read hard, God will leap off the pages as your Defender, your Rescuer and your Friend. He will chase you down with Joseph, whose betrayal became a nation’s survival. He will lift your spirit through David, who fled from the dysfunctional ruler whose tormented soul David had once soothed. David wanted out of the caves, but that’s where God built a king.
If God’s voice is loudest in your life, the identity-cracking comments of others won’t penetrate as deep. I promise.
6. Learn from the amoeba. “Loving people where they’re at” is one of our pet rocks in the church. The truth is, the line between loving and enabling gets blurry in real time. There are true victims who need our care and there are professional victims who exploit our good intentions. If your loved one wields guilt, silent treatment or emotion to control you or otherwise actively and repeatedly harms you, it’s okay to take a step back. Under a microscope, amoeba have been shown to move away from toxic substances. If single-cell organisms can do it, we can too.
7. Brace yourself. When the pushback occurs — and it will if you’re applying new behaviors to old patterns — be ready to stand in your faith. Holiday dysfunction activates all the family landmines. The interesting thing about landmines is they arm when pressure is applied, but detonate only when the pressure is removed. We try to scamper away quick, but things blow up. This season, go in all faithed up. Isaiah 7:9 says, “If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all.” Faith keeps us from crumbling at the first sign of trouble. Holiday dysfunction is no time for wishy-washy faith. Dig deep. Your roots will hold you fast when landmines sweep across the surface.
8. Brace yourself, part 2. Pushback may also come from unexpected places. Friends or family may pressure you to keep the peace at all costs, not realizing they’re recommending a road that leads straight back to chains. There is a difference between peacemaking and peacefaking. Scripture never calls us to sweep mounds of dysfunction or abuse under the rug. Romans 12:18 says, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” Peace is not always possible and it does not always depend on you. The Prince of Peace may be your only peace. He’s enough, you know.
9. Don’t retaliate. If things go south, don’t lash out. By teaching us to turn the other cheek, Jesus was not teaching us to roll over and tolerate abuse. He was instructing us not to retaliate. He illustrated this beautifully in John 18:22-23 when He protested but did not retaliate against the officer who struck him. Self-control in the face of injury is a huge test of Christian character. Keep I Peter 3:9-12 close to your heart. If you refrain from returning all those body blows, a beautiful promise awaits: you get to love your actual life. You may be misunderstood. A false narrative may make the rounds. You may suffer loss. But this passage is clear: Don’t return insult for insult. Don’t repay evil for evil. When you refrain from all that ugly, you can love your life and see good days.
10. Add new tools. Serious family dysfunction is deep, deep water. The mantra, “but it’s family” may have led you to tolerate bad behavior in ways that Jesus never did. Seek a Christian counselor who can keep you tethered to Truth, draw out any actions you need to own, help you unhook from dysfunctional family patterns, and teach you to stand on the only Foundation that won’t crack.
11. Assemble your tribe. Some of you feel orphaned because those who should have nurtured you injured you. Others keep looking out the front door, wondering when your child will come home. This was never God’s plan, but He does make a provision.
Six of the kindest words in scripture are in Psalm 68:6: “He sets the lonely in families.”
Friends, family, and mentors who breathe wisdom, check your motives, and handle your heart with care are God’s kindness to you in your pain.
12. Watch Jesus ‘sit it out.’ You guys. Jesus sees correctly. Hebrews 3:10 says He is seated at the right hand of the Father until His enemies become a footstool for His feet. He’s not reclining yet. He is seated at God’s right hand — a place of action, power and authority. Maybe He’s even leaning forward with anticipation over the beauty and freedom and humility that is being produced in you. He’s protecting, strengthening and refining. He’s making you more like Him.
So, yeah, holiday dysfunction, those weren’t just bad breakup lines.
It’s not you, it’s us.
We need space.
And we’ve found Someone new.
Prayer: Lord I’ve protected my heart for so long, I don’t even know how to bring it to You. Would You teach me to build healthy boundaries in the relationships where I need them — and strip my defenses down in my relationship with You?
I Peter 3:17
I John 1:8
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