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The holidays are supposed to be a time to relax, unwind and celebrate the joy of the holiday season, but walking into a difficult family dynamic can rapidly turn peace and magic into stress and irritability. Instead of feeling the warmth and excitement that you felt leading up to the holidays as a child, you may now be dealing with an all-consuming feeling of dread.

As much as you’d like to bail on grandma’s annual Christmas Eve dinner or pass on the family ice skating outing to avoid a nasty fight or dodge a condescending comment, spending time with family members is an inevitable part of the holiday festivities. It’s one of the few times a year when relatives from all over gather together to celebrate, so family bonding activities are pretty much required.

Rather than steering clear from all family interactions and isolating yourself to escape from uncomfortable emotions and situations, you can confront your anxiety with a few tips and tricks. These strategies and tactics will help you deal with toxic family members and navigate challenging relationships so that you can finally enjoy a season of good cheer.

Accept who they are

It all comes from good intentions. You try to change or fix your troubled relatives because you care about them and want them to have a good quality of life. But, in doing so, everyone ends up frustrated and hurt, which puts a strain on the relationship. The difficult family members start to view themselves as a problem, and you become exhausted trying to repair something beyond your control.

Come to terms with the fact that you cannot control anyone except yourself. You can control how you respond to your loved ones, and you can shift your attitude and perspective, but you cannot change who they are or how they act. Let go of any unrealistic expectations you have for your family members and how you think your relationship with them should be. By lowering your expectations, you’ll feel free from stress and tension rather than succumbing to anger and disappointment. They might not be willing or able to change at the moment, and that’s OK.

Realize it’s not personal

Toxic relatives have a knack for manipulating you into feeling guilty for who you are or what you’ve done. Know that their behavior has nothing to do with you, and you are not to blame. These people are coming from a place of fear, insecurity, unhappiness or anger, and it’s a projection of their own emotions and experiences. Once you recognize that their actions are not a personal offense but rather a reflection of their own mental state, they’ll start to lose their power over you. Rather than feeling attacked and responsible, you’ll feel an incredible amount of peace and freedom.

Express how you feel

Direct communication is the key to de-escalating a heated conflict. When these complex relatives do something that upsets you, tell them how you feel in an honest, clear and assertive way. Pretending that everything is fine circumvents the problem and increases feelings of resentment.

Use “I” statements rather than “you” statements to express the impact of their actions or words on your emotions. Instead of saying, “You make me angry,” explain to them, “I feel unappreciated when you make my decisions for me.” When you accept ownership for your feelings rather than blaming or accusing your relatives, the other party will be more likely to listen and less likely to react defensively. Plus, when you’re honest with your feelings and let go of how you should feel, you’ll create much-needed space to be yourself.

Set clear boundaries

Establishing and reinforcing boundaries is essential for your health, wellbeing, security and sanity. It might feel scary to let family members know when they’ve crossed the line, but communicating your limits will increase your self-esteem and help your relationship function properly.

Identify what emotions come up when you interact with problematic family members, and recognize what types of situations evoke uncomfortable feelings. You’ll gain greater awareness of what you will and will not tolerate. Then, whenever your family does or says something that feels intrusive or upsetting, tell them. Have an open dialogue with them, and communicate where you stand. Establishing boundaries means other people won’t take advantage of you, and you will no longer feel resentful.

Make them feel seen and heard

The secret to effective communication is making people feel seen and heard. Encourage the manipulative family members to express their point of view. Listen attentively without judging or interrupting. Try to understand their perspective. Where are they coming from? Validate their emotions instead of dismissing them or minimizing them. This process of taking on another person’s perspective makes people feel respected and understood, so they’re less likely to be defensive or difficult.