Holidays usually call for joy and lots of time with loved ones. As much as we may cherish moments with our family and friends, dealing with their unsolicited comments about us can be painful. It’s difficult to spend time with people and build deeper relationships when you’re attacked with those dreaded comments and interrogations:
“You’ve gained weight.”
“Why aren’t you married yet?”
“When will you get a ‘real’ job?”
These comments are distressing and can make it difficult to be yourself during what is supposed to be a cheerful time. If you feel guilty about wanting to avoid family gatherings because you’re afraid of what your relatives will say — don’t. Your feelings are completely valid. Just because they’re your family and their comments might come from a place of love or concern, doesn’t make it OK.
Here are some ways to help you handle hurtful comments from your loved ones this holiday season and how you can cultivate overall healthier relationships.
Understand the context behind the criticism
At the end of the day, the only people we can control are ourselves. We can’t control the people around us, but we can communicate with them.
We spoke to Lisa Cheng, chief of human resources at Asian Mental Health Collective (AMHC), the first mental health organization focused on normalizing and destigmatizing mental health in the Asian community. Cheng shared that it can be helpful to think about where a comment may be coming from and recognize how intergenerational trauma comes into play.
Speaking from her own experience, Cheng described how her mother would comment on her appearance as soon as she walked through the door. Even though she knew her comments were out of love, Cheng let her mother know what she was doing and how it was hurtful.
“My mom didn’t even realize that she was being hurtful. It was almost compulsive. She didn’t think what she was saying was coming out of criticism, because it’s exactly what she experienced from her parents when she was a child,” Cheng said.
“We have the tools to recognize when things are toxic to us, but our parents may not have necessarily had those resources. It’s important to remember that our parents may not have had the chance to heal from their trauma.”
Oftentimes our relatives may not be aware that the things they say and do are hurtful. Topics of mental health have historically been stigmatized in communities of color, and it may be hard for our families to express feelings they associate with vulnerability. In Western society, we often expect love to be portrayed through hugs, kisses, kind words and gifts. Our expectations of love may not translate to how love was given to our parents and previous generations of family members.
Intergenerational trauma is reminiscent of the idiom: “Hurt people hurt other people.” Your relatives might not realize that they’re hurt and therefore hurting you. This doesn’t make it OK for them to hurt you, but it may help to understand their behavior and how you can set boundaries. Setting boundaries empowers you and defines the way you want and expect to be treated.
The only sure-fire way to ensure that someone knows how you feel is by telling them. You can try to calmly explain how their words are affecting you with words that they can understand.
“Center the present. Let them know that you’d like to enjoy time with them, but their criticism is hurtful and makes it difficult to spend more time together,” Cheng explained.
Your loved one might not immediately understand and may even resist your wishes with comments along the lines of “You’re too sensitive” or “You’re being weak.” If met with more criticism, you can continue trying to be vulnerable instead of defensive.
In the case of being called “too sensitive” after explaining how their criticism affected her, Cheng shared an example response: “Yes, I am sensitive. The things you say make it hard to be around you, and I wish to spend quality time together. It’s impossible to do that if I always feel hurt with you.”
Have an escape plan
It’s okay to give yourself space. You don’t have to attend every single event or stay the entire time. You can negotiate with your family and let them know ahead of time which events you’ll attend and the timeframe you’ll be there for. It is perfectly reasonable to have plans or work or studies that will make you late or have to leave early. This may involve preparation like driving yourself or having a ride from a friend ready. You don’t owe your time to anyone. You may feel obligated to show your face, but you shouldn’t do so at the cost of your mental health.
Talk to your support systems
It can feel alienating to deal with toxic situations within your own family, but you’re not alone. Share your feelings with friends who you trust. You can also consider speaking to a mental health professional who can provide unbiased expertise on your situation. Sometimes it’s helpful to speak to someone who is removed from your own life. There are also safe spaces like Subtle Asian Mental Health where many other people are dealing with similar problems. No two people are the same, but we are all children of diaspora, and we often live similar experiences and struggles.
Dealing with verbal attacks from your relatives is difficult, and you have every right to be upset. Just know that you are not alone. Holding it all inside can be painful and cause you to harbor resentment towards people who want to love you but don’t know how to. Communication and setting boundaries can help you stop dreading family gatherings and foster healthier relationships.
“Understanding where our parents came from does not invalidate your experience, nor does it justify it. But understanding our intergenerational trauma can help us heal.”
Feature image via Getty