Navigating Uncomfortable Family Dynamics in Recovery

By Elizabeth Rosselle

With the holidays being officially here, lots and lots of family time is imminent for many of us. While some people are lucky enough to have simple, sound, drama-free relationships with their families, this isn’t the reality for many of us in recovery. And, if we’re in early recovery, family gatherings can be particularly painful, particularly if there’s unresolved trauma that exists within the family unit. 

Regardless of what your specific family dynamic looks like, if you’ve landed on this post and you’re still reading, maybe there are some family triggers you’re looking to navigate. It’s possible you’re feeling pressure to live up to family expectations. Or, perhaps you’re worried you might feel pressure to drink at a party. Really, any kind of unresolved trauma or temptation to drink that’s triggered when you’re around family members is something to pay attention to when you’re in recovery.

Past wounds, generational trauma, and a history of abuse 

Things like past wounds, generational trauma, and a history of abuse—many of these things point to a lack of healthy boundaries. Maybe we, ourselves, have never learned to establish healthy boundaries, maybe certain family members don’t respect our boundaries, or maybe it’s the entire family with boundary issues. Whatever the reason, if you’re struggling with any of this, talk to your sponsor or a therapist about how you can work toward establishing healthy boundaries for yourself. And, if something in your family dynamic poses any physical threats, it’s perfectly acceptable to opt out of the holidays entirely. Intervention might even be necessary.

Less obvious triggers are still valid and can still pose a threat to your recovery

Maybe your triggers are less threatening, but that doesn’t mean you’re feelings aren’t valid. Many people in recovery feel as though they’ve been a disappointment to their families. Whether the disappointment is real or perceived, it can be very confronting to deal with, especially if certain family members aren’t particularly supportive or positive about your recovery. Once again, it can be good to talk to a sponsor or therapist about this before facing your family. Also, if you’re in a recovery program, use the tools you were given. This might mean doing some step work or other writing exercises on the family members that trigger you. Or, it might simply mean you need to go to more meetings. 

Unrealistic expectations can also lead to disappointment 

Just because you’ve been doing work to change and be a better person, don’t expect your family to meet you there. Work on removing expectations, and keep reminding yourself that expectations are dangerous to your sobriety. You’re not the first person to be let down by family members due to your unrealistic expectations, and you certainly won’t be the last. Remember, the only person you have the power to change is yourself. You can shift your perspective, you can show up with dignity and grace, and you can stay sober. Eventually, the people in your life who are the most important will meet you where your at, but you must lead by example. Rarely, if ever, will people change because you expect them to change. But, if they see how well you’re doing and how much you’re enjoying your life while adopting new principles, your positive influence might rub off on them. But, for your own sanity and peace of mind, try ditching the expectations and just do you.  

Solutions for Navigating Triggering Family Situations

First, figure out what your triggers are. Try to anticipate what you can expect and determine what you will and will not tolerate. Your sobriety is more important than anything else, so protect it. If you feel like your sobriety might be threatened by attending a certain gathering, then don’t attend. Or, do your best to minimize your own triggering behaviors and interactions with family members that trigger you the most, and permit yourself to leave the situation if things start to go south.  

If you’ve been in recovery for years and you’re still avoiding family, however, then do some soul searching and pick up your recovery tools, or talk to your sponsor. There are situations and family dynamics that are so brutally toxic that it’s best to sever all ties, but this is rare. Usually, resolving family trauma is going to be a very healing part of your recovery journey, even if you don’t agree with everyones’ lifestyle choices.  

Here are some ideas, tools, practices, and behaviors that can help:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Regular recovery meeting attendance
  • Talk to a sponsor or therapist
  • Make peace with the past and don’t continue to nurse grudges  
  • Make self-care a priority for now—don’t feel like you need to “save” relationships
  • Set healthy boundaries 
  • Give yourself space between family gatherings so you have time to decompress
  • Limit your exposure to parties where there will be lots of drugs and alcohol present if you know these are still triggers. It’s just not worth it. If your family doesn’t understand this, it’s their problem, not yours. 
  • If you have family members that are supportive, lean on them

If you’re worried about triggering family dynamics during the holidays, don’t ignore them. Develop the right approach to handle them, even if this means turning to a professional. You’ve worked hard to get sober and stay sober, but it doesn’t mean you’re immune to challenges. Furthermore, while no single individual is necessarily in the wrong where uncomfortable family dynamics are concerned, your feelings are valid. Honor them and, most importantly, honor your recovery first and foremost. And, remember, help is always around the corner.

Kembali Recovery Center can Help

If you or someone you love is struggling this holiday season, Kembali Recovery Center is here to walk the path with you. Contact us to learn more about our recovery programs. You never have to do this alone. 

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