Christmas and New Year can be one of the most challenging times for those who have experienced abuse. The media is full of images of happy smiling families, laughing children and a message of peace and hope. But for all too many people the reality is very different. Along with all the expectation, Christmas and other holidays also bring huge pressures, emotionally, socially and financially. For abuse survivors, those pressures can often make their situation feel unmanageable.
Where abuse took place in a family setting, many of the relationships are distorted and toxic. If survivors haven’t yet fully broken free from the abusive situation, they may still be subject to emotional manipulation, control and possibly further abuse.
Even where abuse did not take place in a family setting, the resulting trauma tends to leave survivors feeling isolated, disconnected and vulnerable. Sometimes, with the best will in the world, families do not always understand the long-term impact on survivors, and that can put relationships under strain at a time that is supposed to be all about love, peace and belonging.
These things add up, and those who have already experienced all the pain and distress of abuse, often feel anxious and depressed around this time, not to mention having to negotiate a minefield of triggers, flashbacks and panic attacks.
Despite all the pressure, it is possible for survivors to navigate the holiday season minefield. Here are ten simple things you can do to help you stay safe.
1. Remember that you will survive this
You survived the abuse that happened to you, and you will survive this. The holiday season can be downright scary and painful, and the anticipation of things going wrong is often one of the worst things. Even if things don’t go as well as they might, the chances are that it will not be a total disaster. You will be safe, and you can get through this. Try to remember that in a day or two this will be over, and you can return to the rest of your life.
2. Remember that you are now an adult
One of the things abusive family often do is to treat survivors as if they are still vulnerable and helpless children. If you are not careful you can buy into that lie, and start to respond as the victim you once were,rather than the survivor you are now. Every now and again try to stop and remind yourself that you are an adult, and that you are capable of making grown-up choices. If necessary, remind those who are trying to take your power away that they no longer determine what you do with your life.
3. Prioritise your own wellbeing
Whatever obligations you may feel towards others, whether they are family or friends, the most important obligation you have is to your own wellbeing and emotional health. It isn’t easy to go against the expectations that others may place on you, but there are times when you need to look out for yourself first. If keeping other people happy is likely to jeopardise your health or happiness, then it may be time to make some new choices and do something different.
5. Anticipate potential pressure points
Having to interact with family will always bring a certain amount of pressure. Where that family is abusive, manipulative or controlling, the pressure can be almost intolerable. It is worth trying to think through what the various pressure points might be and seeing if you can find some strategies for lessening the pressure, defusing the situation or if necessary for getting yourself away from it.
4. Be clear on your boundaries
Survivors often struggle to maintain healthy and appropriate boundaries, and it is often those who are closest to us that are the worst at not respecting them when we try. Ahead of time, try to think through what are your non-negotiable boundaries for the times you have to spend with family. That could be around conversations you aren’t willing to have, how much or little you want to spend on presents, or time out that you need to keep your sanity. Decide how you will respond — what you will say and do if anyone tries to override your boundaries. No matter how others may try to make you feel, there is nothing wrong with setting a boundary to help you feel more secure.
5. Keep breathing and grounding yourself
Make sure you know how to ground yourself if you are triggered. There are a whole range of grounding tools and techniques that you can use when you start to feel stressed or panicky. They are usually simple things based around breathing and distraction. You can download a free handy sheet of grounding techniques from the Trauma Breakthrough website: https://www.traumabreakthrough.org/product/how-to-ground-myself/
6. Have something physical to anchor you
It can be really helpful for survivors to have something physical to anchor themselves. Choose something to help you feel connected to people or places that make you feel safe. Having a nice stone, or a set of worry beads or something else tactile to play with when you are feeling stressed can be useful in itself. However, if whatever you have also has some connection to safe people or places, it can also serve as a reminder of safety and belonging.
7. Take time out whenever you can
Dealing with difficult emotions and relationship dynamics can be exhausting at the best of times. It is important to rest and take time out whenever you can. Taking time out also helps you to have time to think and breathe, away from some of the pressure. If you are triggered or upset in any way, the single most helpful thing you can give yourself is some time away from the triggering situation — even if that is only to go for a walk or to take a few minutes in a different room.
8. Go with others if possible
If you need to go into a difficult family situation at any point over the holidays, and particularly if there are still dynamics of control, manipulation or abuse then make sure you don’t go alone. Having a safe person with you may not change the way your family are with you, but it will help you to feel safe, and will make it harder for them to convince you that their behaviour and attitudes are normal or OK.
9. Plan your exit strategy
Whether your family is actively abusive or merely putting pressure on you through lack of understanding, it is important for you to know that you can leave, and go somewhere safe when you need to. Think about when you want to leave, what reasons you need to give, and how you are going to travel. If possible make plans to leave that do not depend on anyone else. Even if you don’t actually decide to go somewhere, simply having a plan in place may make you feel a little more secure.
10. You do not have to be perfect
Finally, many abuse survivors go through life feeling as if they have to do everything perfectly. Any less feels like failure. Perhaps you have gone through your life believing that you are not good enough, or that you have to meet impossible demands to be treated as a worthwhile and valuable human being. Try to remember that nothing about Christmas has to be perfect. The dinner, the presents, the family times will all be good enough. If others are disappointed or try to make you feel bad that things aren’t just the way they want them, that is their problem not yours. What you do will be good enough, because you are good enough — just as you are, you are worthy of respect, love and belonging.
Wishing all of you a peaceful and safe time over Christmas and the holiday season.