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How to deal with emotionally draining family this festive season

FAMILY can be draining. Picture: Pexels: Liza Summer

FAMILY can be draining. Picture: Pexels: Liza Summer

Published Dec 24, 2021


Family is often represented as the core institution in our lives. Although family relationships can be tough at times and many go through ups and downs, healthy families should remain a support system through the good, bad and ugly.

But this isn’t the case for all families. While many family members may be excited to go home this festive season, some people dread this time because of family members who steal their joy.

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From constantly asking weight-related questions, to condescending comments about personal development or relationship status, we all have family members who don’t know how to create a mentally healthy environment and make you feel emotionally drained in their company.

What are the traits of emotionally and mentally draining people? Also known as energy vampires, energy suckers, unhappy negative people.

Dr Alicia Porter Member of the South African Society of Psychiatrists says these are the things that you should look out for:

  • Over dramatic – problems are bigger, worse, more extreme than others.
  • Make mountains out of molehills.
  • Over critical, finding fault with just about everyone and everything in their lives.
  • Punitive.
  • Lack boundaries.
  • Lack of self-awareness – it’s always everybody else’s fault. Blame others for their actions, unable to accept responsibility.
  • Are intrusive, and their presence feels intrusive.
  • Chronic complainers – rarely find anything to their liking or satisfaction.
  • Argumentative, have trouble agreeing with others, even on things that seem insignificant or inconsequential.
  • Negative – the glass is always half empty.
  • Pushy and overbearing.

“Relationships may be emotionally and physically exhausting if you have to make regular sacrifices to make sure their needs are met. Experience anxiety, fatigue, and frustration when you are around them,” Porter says.

As well as worrying about their issues more than your own well-being. “Positive feelings for them are starting to disappear and you don’t enjoy spending time with them any longer. And they are interfering with other areas of your life or you change your life to accommodate them,” Porter says.

Cutting ties with a toxic family member can be scary, but if your mental health is being hurt by the relationship, it might be the best thing for you to do for your own well-being.

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Sherrie Campbell, clinical psychologist and author of But it’s your family … cutting ties with toxic family members, says any relationship with mental, physical, sexual, verbal or emotional abuse should be reconsidered if it’s causing you mental harm.

“Often this decision is more forced upon us than it is voluntary, and it’s confusing because we’re conditioned to believe that terminating relationships with family is morally wrong.”

If cutting family members is not the route you want to take, Porter says: “You need to recognise or identify them – identify what may be happening – may not be able to recognise initially, but pay close attention to how you feel when you are around them – physical reactions that you may have like muscle tension, loss of energy, headaches, irritability, sadness, negativity, or increased levels of anxiety when encountering them or contemplating being in their company.”

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“Limit the amount of time that you spend with them – set firm boundaries regarding the amount of time that you spend with them and let them know before-hand. For example, I will be home for the weekend and then I will be leaving. Boundaries and limit setting are important, and it is important that you hold the boundary, as they will resist or push back on the boundary or the limit set.”

“Don’t try to fix them or their problems – they are not really looking for solutions, as they ‘enjoy’ /thrive on the crisis or the drama,” Porter says.

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