Ask Sahaj: How do I tell family I’m not coming home for the holidays?

Q: I’m not going home for the holidays, and I’m not sure how much of the truth to tell my extended family. I know that in theory simply saying I have other plans should work, but my family struggles with enmeshment. The truth is, I have a boundary that I won’t be alone with one of my family members, and not being there is the best way to uphold that. I’m not sure what story this family member has created in my absence, and I don’t want to share the full story to anybody anyway. How do I navigate conversations about declining holiday invitations without airing out drama and reliving traumas?

– Opting Out

A: It’s incredibly difficult to stick to a boundary, especially in an enmeshed family, or a family where boundaries are not encouraged or respected. It’s also brave and scary to put yourself first when you may be expected to choose your family at the expense of your own well-being.

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Some of your family will not understand why you are not coming home, especially if this is the first time you choose not to. You should have the conversation as early as possible so they have time to adjust and manage their own feelings. Talking about it early is a kind way to be honest – it saves you from having to lie when they bring up the holidays – and gives them time to process your absence before the holidays come around. And remember, even if your family is disappointed, you can recognize this is the best decision for you. Both things can be true at the same time.

You get to decide how much detail to share and with who when sharing your boundary. With some people, you might feel more comfortable sticking to a short and matter-of-fact response, like, “I know we usually spend the holidays together, but this year I won’t be coming home because [insert explanation here].” While it would be ideal to say you’re not coming home without an explanation, in an enmeshed family, I’d suggest sharing a clear and concise explanation. It’s up to you if you want to be honest or say you have other plans.

With others, you may want to offer a concession, like, “If you’d like to make plans to see each other one-on-one in the new year, I would really like that.” Or “I will give you a call on [holiday]!”

The way you communicate your boundary may vary, but it’s important to be clear, consistent and kind yet firm. You can practice how you’ll respond if you are questioned or challenged. Something like, “I understand it’s upsetting that I’m not coming home this year. It’s the best thing for me right now, and I appreciate you respecting that.”

Make sure you are differentiating between what is your responsibility – how and when you communicate – and what is not your responsibility – managing other people’s emotions. Setting boundaries in an enmeshed family can cause guilt, so it’s important to understand that feeling guilt does not mean you are doing something wrong.

You mentioned not wanting to share the full story, and I want to reiterate that you should not have to put yourself in a situation where you are retriggered because of a family member. However, if there are certain relationships where you feel safe, consider being more honest about why you aren’t coming home to gain support you may need. This is totally up to you. You don’t owe anyone an explanation for why you’re taking care of yourself. But, it may help you build and nurture the relationships that are important to you.

I want to remind you that you also don’t owe this family member your secrecy. In an enmeshed family, where fierce loyalty is expected, it can feel like we have to protect our relatives and keep their secrets, but it’s not your responsibility to lie for them. Choosing not to be honest with people because you don’t want to is different from choosing not to be honest because you feel like you are not allowed to.

Eventually, you may want to seek out professional support to help you work through any unprocessed trauma you are still experiencing, and in navigating new dynamics with your family because of it.

Since you are opting out of the holidays with family, I want to encourage you to seek out a different tradition – with yourself or with friends – to fill your season with safety and joy in whatever ways you can. You deserve it.

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Sahaj Kaur Kohli. Photo Twitter @SahajKohli

Sahaj Kaur Kohli is a mental health professional and the creator of Brown Girl Therapy.

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