Surviving Your Family of Origin At Christmas Time

CPTSD Foundation
8 min readDec 18, 2023

Most survivors have families of origin that were responsible for their forming complex post-traumatic stress disorder through committing chronic child abuse. So, the holidays, especially Christmas, are very difficult for them.

This article will explore the hazards of having a dysfunctional family of origin and ways to ease pressure and disappointment.

What are the Holiday Blues?

According to NAMI (The National Alliance on Mental Illness), approximately 1 in 5 adults have some form of mental health disorder. For those who have formed complex post-traumatic stress disorder, dealing with having a mental health condition combined with the holidays often brings increased depression and anxiety.

The holiday blues or holiday depression causes the holidays to, instead of being a time of rejoicing, turn into a time of painful reflection and loneliness. Even people who are not survivors of childhood trauma can experience the blues during the holiday season. Christmas places unusual demands on them, leaving them exhausted.

The most common holiday blues symptom is depression or recurring feelings of sadness that begin as the holiday season starts. While some people who have the holiday blues are almost debilitated, others experience only brief bouts of depression mixed with feeling upbeat.

Other symptoms of the holiday blues are very similar to those found in seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and may also include:

  • Changes in appetite
  • Depression or irritability
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Feeling worthless or guilty
  • Feeling tense, anxious, and worried
  • Loss of pleasure doing things you enjoy
  • Feeling fatigued

Because the above symptoms are so similar to both major depressive disorder and seasonal affective disorder, you should consult your mental health professional for help.

What Causes the Holiday Blues?

The jury is still out on what exactly happens in the brain to cause the blues during the holiday season. Stress is believed to be the main culprit mixed with trauma experienced in childhood or recent events.

Other sources of sadness during the holidays are:

  • Fatigue
  • Unrealistic expectations
  • Over-commercialization of Christmas
  • Feeling financial stress

Having the inability to be with your family of origin (FOI), even though they drive you crazy, still causes feelings of guilt or being left out. However, knowing you will be with your FOI can also cause enormous stress.

Reliving hard times lived in a series of flashbacks of the prior Christmas’ adds a new dimension of sadness to the person who has survived childhood abuse. Many remember the danger of being out of school for the holidays, which brought on more abuse or the problems with alcohol their parents and relatives may have had.

Emotional Overwhelm at Christmas

Emotional overwhelm is challenging to deal with any time of year, but especially at Christmas. Emotional overwhelm is a state of upset because of intense emotion and is difficult to manage. This condition makes you behave irrationally, keeping you from completing daily tasks.

There are several causes of emotional overwhelm, including stress, having survived a traumatic life event (or series of them), and, of course, Christmas. Emotional overwhelm occurs when the intensity of your feelings overcomes your ability to manage them.

Some of the most common symptoms of emotional overwhelm are:

  • Feeling physically ill
  • Disproportionately responding to insignificant situations
  • Feeling fatigued
  • Having trouble focusing
  • Withdrawing from friends and family
  • Having problems completing even simple tasks
  • Your emotions color how you perceive your world
  • Feelings of intense grief or sadness during happy occasions
  • Flashbacks to traumatic events that happened in your life

People who experience emotional overwhelm are often overcome with negative emotions such as fear, guilt, anger, and, sometimes, mania.

Surviving Dinner with Toxic Relatives

We’ve all been there. We’re invited to a Christmas dinner with our family of origin. We dread it because we haven’t seen some of these people in a year and don’t particularly look forward to it now.

If you have complex post-traumatic stress disorder, Christmas dinner with the family can cause extreme distress. Our trouble with meeting with our family of origin may be related to them drinking excessive amounts of alcohol or because they were responsible for your having CPTSD.

Because our family of origin is dysfunctional, they may argue or make snide comments about you or treat you with disdain because you are in therapy. Whatever the cause, emotional overwhelm creeps in weeks in advance as we dread the unhappiness we will feel being in our family of origin’s presence.

You can do at least four things not to become overwhelmed at Christmas dinner with your family.

  1. Don’t take anything your family says or does personally. It doesn’t matter what others say or do because those things come directly from their issues. You are not the cause of their rude behavior; they are projecting their inadequacies and fears onto you.
  2. Plan ahead. Decide ahead of time who you will sit next to and the types of conversations you would like to engage in. Think of your answers to relatives who are nosy about your life and healing journey. Preparing ahead gives you an edge and helps you to survive unscathed.
  3. Befriend yourself. Plan what you will and will not tolerate from your family. Build boundaries with the people at Christmas dinner and stick to them, especially if they try to shame you. Tell them in no uncertain terms that they are disrespecting you and that you will not tolerate it.
  4. Leave. You are human and deserve love and respect from everyone, including your family of origin. If your family does not give you what you deserve, leaving either the conversation or the dinner altogether is okay. Keep in mind that your emotional well-being is vital and that you deserve to be treated with dignity, love, and respect.

The bottom line is that you ultimately control how you respond to your family of origin. They do not control you; you do.

Steps for Avoiding Stress During the Holidays

Have you ever noticed that when we visit our families, we fall back into the roles we had during our childhood? This regression is a standard psychological defense mechanism. This particular defense mechanism attacks us, especially when we are in the presence of our family of origin, because of the stress we feel and our emotional overwhelm.

If you experience regression with your family, don’t fault yourself. Regression is a normal response by our brain that will default to previous social experiences that it recognizes from the past.

There are some things you can do to help you if you find yourself regressing into old roles by examining your family dynamics and what you want from the holiday.

Set firm boundaries. Setting firm boundaries is difficult at best if you have never set any with your family. Even if you have set boundaries before, your family may ignore them and step beyond your drawn line. However, you owe it to yourself to push back and remind them that you will not tolerate such behavior.

Accept your family for who they are. You cannot change other people; this is an undeniable fact. Wishing your family of origin would change will not make it happen; it only sets you up for misery. Find what you like about your family of origin and concentrate on that. If there is nothing you can think of, why are you there?

Stop the cycle of manipulation by family members. Many families use emotional manipulation to place guilt on members so they will attend Christmas dinner. It is critical to reassure yourself that you are making the correct choice for you. Going to Christmas dinner is not a requirement by law, so why attend if you know your family will mistreat you?

Keep in mind that the holidays will soon be over. Because you are experiencing emotional overwhelm, it can be challenging to remember that Christmas is one day per year, so your time of misery is limited. When caught up in anxiety and emotional overwhelm, it is beneficial to use some grounding techniques that you have practiced ahead of time.

Ending Our Time Together

Trauma can leave people struggling with complex post-traumatic stress disorder that makes going through the holidays hell. But it doesn’t need to remain that way. You can choose to find a new family and spend the holidays with them instead. Your family of origin may object and try to guilt you into attending their dinner, but you can say a resounding no.

I have flashbacks throughout the Christmas season, but I have learned not to dread them because I have techniques I use to pull myself out of them. One of the techniques that works well for me is deep breathing. Somehow, breathing deeply in through my nose and slowly out my mouth brings me calm, and it can be done anywhere.

Don’t set your expectations too high regarding your family of origin and Christmas dinner. Doing so will only bring you misery and enhance your emotional overwhelm.

Remember, too, that you have friends here at CPTSD Foundation who are always here in some fashion to help you cope. We care deeply for you.

“So if you’ve always been a ‘giver,’ take some time for yourself in your life — to stop, be still, to allow the Universe to nourish you. We all deserve nourishment, even if we were taught those many years ago that we didn’t. And if you give it permission, the Universe is happy to provide.” — Katherine Mayfield

“But remember that this is a dysfunctional pattern, born of misunderstanding and misinterpretation. We can’t know what others truly need, but with a little investigation, we can find out what nourishes us and place our focus there. Then we become a role model for others — when we see someone nourishing themselves, we tend to allow more space in our lives to do that for ourselves.” — Katherine Mayfield

Originally published at https://cptsdfoundation.org.

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CPTSD Foundation

Successfully equipping complex trauma survivors and practitioners with compassionate support, skills, and trauma-informed education since 2014.