This post won’t be for everyone. But oh dear goodness, it will be for someone. Consider it a salve for the sisters who need less silent treatment and more Silent Night. Or a nod to those who secretly think Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer is a catchy little tune. Or a lifeline for those who limp through the holidays, weary of expectations or wary of family secrets and scorecards.
It’s time to break up with holiday dysfunction.
I see the look in your eyes because I’ve seen the look in your eyes. I’ve spoken to women who choke back tears over controlling, manipulative or toxic relationships. I’ve seen that look in the mirror. I know what it’s like to feel defeated and scared and sure you’re doing this whole Christian thing wrong.
The 12 Days of Christmas don’t technically start until Christmas day. But by my calculations of wind speed, the weight of expectations, and guilt trip frequent flier miles, the 12 Dysfunctional Days of Christmas start right now.
Maybe this is the year you stop limping to January 1st, wondering how another Christmas season got sabotaged by someone you love who sucks the oxygen out of the room and then blames you because they can’t breathe.
Here it is. An oxygen mask. Take it. Here’s a holiday hack to help navigate the 12 Dysfunctional Days of Christmas.
1. Don’t take the bait. 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 critical or competitive words or the annual reading of the litany 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.
2. Control the burn. Great job, you didn’t add wood! Now, limit your exposure to the flame, especially around toxic people. Under a microscope even amoeba have been shown to shy away from toxic substances. If single-cell organisms can do it, we can, too. How? Gather by Zoom instead of in the living room. Or, spend two hours with the family instead of two days. Or go skiing. Or go to Siberia. (No, you won’t ruin Christmas. If Herod couldn’t do it with power and resources and cunning, you won’t either.)
3. Lighten your load. It’s a difficult thing to watch someone you love suffer in poor mental health, angry 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 to where it belonged. You don’t have to work harder on someone’s life than they do. A hurting family member may manipulate, but you don’t have to capitulate.
4. 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. 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 knew what He wants us to know too: a trap is no match for the truth.) The guilt you feel may be a gut check for codependency. Beth Moore writes, “Two in a pit is not better than one … 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.”
5. Stay soft. 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.” Jesus shows us the way. In His dealings with people who were hurting, He was tender and certain without being severe. Is your loved one untreated for depression? Are they desperate to protect a secret or a system or an -ism? Are they terrified of failing health or loss of independence? Is there unresolved trauma? Is their own mind working against them as they descend into mental illness? It’s loving to pray for them from this softer place. Be kind. Keep love active. Empathize. “Love more, not less,” writes Bob Goff. “Will you take a hit? Of course you will. Do it anyway.”
6. Dig deep. Unhooking from guilt trips, manipulation, controlling patterns or abuse requires more than a quick scripture-of-the-day. If you read long and 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 you train your ear to listen to God’s voice the loudest in your life, you’ll begin to trust Him as gentle, life-giving and good.
7. Suit up. When pushback occurs—and it will if you’re applying new behaviors to old patterns—be ready. 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 sometimes try to scamper away quick, but things blow up. Holiday dysfunction is no time to be caught defenseless. Read Ephesians 6, and suit up so you’re able to stand.
8. See good days. Keep I Peter 3:9-10 close to your heart. If you refrain from repaying evil for evil or returning insult for insult—and instead seek peace and pursue it—you’re paving the way for a life you love and you’re setting yourself up to see good days. You may be misunderstood. A false narrative may make the rounds. You may suffer loss. But this passage is clear: Don’t exchange body blows.
9. Stop peacefaking. Pushback may also come from unexpected places. Others may pressure you to keep the peace at all costs, but 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.
10. Run with horses. When an Old Testament prophet named Jeremiah pressed God about why the faithless seem to live at ease, God replied, “If you have raced with men on foot and they have worn you out, how can you compete with horses?”
God has bigger races for us to run. If we crumble at the inconsequential, we won’t be fit for fierce.
11. Gather your squad. 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. Six of the kindest words in scripture are found 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 kind provision in your pain.
12. Hand your mess to the Messiah. Oh friends, 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.
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?
This post is an updated version from an original December 2018 post.
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