Recognising that we’re filled with dread at the prospect of being around our family can simultaneously flood us with shame. It’s why, despite our anxiety, we go ahead and agree to the arrangement, or book the plane ticket, or make our way over there for dinner. Or, we keep cancelling, rescheduling, or willing a natural disaster, illness or other commitment to spare us from saying no.

On some level, we recognise that we either don’t want to do whatever it is or that, yes, we don’t want to be around our family. And we feel ashamed because aren’t we all supposed to want to be around our family? Shouldn’t we feel grateful to have a family even if they’re big on drama? After all, other people wish they had a family and there we are shuddering and simmering about ours. It’s like when we’re in pain or struggling and tell ourselves to “buck up” because someone else “has it worse”. Sure, but that doesn’t change our very real experience.

Trying to live up to our idealised version of family is why we feel ashamed about family estrangement or go to extraordinary lengths to avoid it.

Shouldn’t we persevere no matter the toll or even the abuse we experience?, we reason. Um, no. That’s like repeatedly stepping into oncoming traffic and expecting the cars to eventually not run us over.

It speaks volumes that being around our family (or contemplating it) stresses us out. The dynamic and patterns are stressors on our nervous system.

Something about how we interact with family means fuzzy boundaries, unmet needs and ignored values.

Family are who we learned about obligation and our perception of our boundaries, needs and values. When we’re in acute turmoil over interacting with our family and yet we persist anyway, it’s because, on some level, we feel obliged. We’re not spending time with our family because we want to but because we feel we have to. We’re still attempting to live up to our idealised version of a family member. There’s also an underlying hope that if we play our role, eventually we’ll realise our fantasy of having a ‘better’ family.

If being stressed out about being around family is familiar to you, one of the best things you can do in these situations is check in with yourself.

Are you attempting to be around your family from a place of desire or from a place of obligation, guilt, shame, anxiety, etc?

If it’s any of the latter, you are overriding your boundaries by attempting to play a role to fulfil the so-called obligation or get rid of the feelings you don’t like. You’re people pleasing, and this guarantees frustration, guilt and eventual, if not immediate, resentment. It’s an anxious response, not an I-want-to-spend-time-around-my-family response.

Get honest, do you actually want to see them?

Sure, it might mean hearing the truth, but at least you can operate from a place of boundaries and authenticity. You can make self-esteem-driven choices rather than praying that you’re not about to do your 1000th Nightmare on Elm Street sequel.

And maybe you do want to see them, just not to the extent they’re suggesting.

Be honest about the sweet spot of interacting with your family.

Sure, it would be lovely to hang out in bliss with your family for a week like you imagine other families do. But if that’s not your family, why ignore that data?

If the sweet spot is a few hours, a day, a weekend, or whatever it is before it’s handbags at dawn or you start to feel as if you’re losing your mind, work within that. It might take a bit of trial and error to figure out what works best, but at least you won’t keep setting yourself up to fail by doing the same thing and expecting different results.

It’s unrealistic to think that there’s an immediate feel-good option.

You spend time around your family and wind up feeling bad. Then you contemplate not spending time around them or actually distance yourself, and you also feel bad.

Be honest with yourself and recognise that whatever you do, you’re not going to feel great about it. Engaging with anyone in an unhealthy, stressful fashion means that you are guaranteed to feel all kinds of guilty when you don’t toe the party line. It’s not because you’re doing something wrong; you’re doing something unfamiliar. Note the difference. i.e. You’re considering your needs, desires, expectations, feelings and opinions. You have boundaries.

But how you feel and what you’re experiencing in each of these instances–spending time, being more boundaried–also feel very different if you’re willing to pay attention to this. And it’s easy to argue ‘Well, I’ll feel like crap and also look like the Good, Dutiful Daughter/Son/Whatever, so I’ll go with that.

First of all, really? Second, you’re trying to look like and prove something that extends your pain and struggle. Performing at being a Good Family Member is not the same as being your authentic, loving, boundaried self.

If you’re waiting for something not to hurt or be difficult, you’re in for a long wait. Start figuring out where your stress is coming from and what you want to do, and you will take the first steps in moving towards healthily engaging with your family.

For more help with learning to say no when you need, should, or want to, order my new book, The Joy of Saying No: A Simple Plan to Stop People Pleasing, Reclaim Boundaries, and Say Yes to the Life You Want (HarperCollins/Harper Horizon), out now and available at all booksellers.

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