Putting the “Fun” in Dysfunctional: Saving Your Sanity This Holiday Season

[Hello, Team! This is a reprint of my article from the December 2002 issue of O Magazine, where I first introduced “Dysfunctional Family Bingo”, a staple for surviving any family event. My team put together a bingo card for you and your favorite people to play along. Enjoy and good luck out there!]

In the Uncle Remus story of the tar baby, Brer Rabbit picks a fight with a lifelike doll made out of tar and turpentine. The tar baby is so gluey that when the rabbit punches it, his fists get hopelessly stuck. He tries to kick his way free, trapping his feet, then finishes off with an infuriated head butt that renders him utterly helpless.

I can’t think of a more fitting metaphor for family life in the 21st century. There’s nothing in the world as sticky as a dysfunctional family. You can put half your life’s savings into therapy—good therapy, effective therapy—and, 15 minutes into a holiday reunion, you still become hopelessly enmeshed in the same old crazy dynamics. Your assertiveness training goes out the window the minute your brother begins his traditional temper tantrum. A mere sigh from your grandmother triggers an attack of codependency so severe you end up giving her your house. For many people, family get-togethers require strategies for staying out of such sticky situations. Before you head over the river and through the woods, give some thought to the following suggestions.

Strategy #1: Give Up Hope

Most of us go home for the holidays thinking (along with comedienne Abby Sher), God, grant me the ability to change the things I cannot accept. Even if we don’t consciously realize it, we want our families to cease and desist from all the things that affect us like fingernails on a chalkboard. We don’t ask much—just socially appropriate behavior, dammit, and minimal reparations for the more damaging incidents in our past. Although come to think of it, things would certainly go better if our relatives would listen openly, communicate honestly, and agree with us on all significant issues. And possibly offer money.

The hope that our families will act perfectly—or even reasonably well—sets us up to whack the tar baby, to be incapacitated by the dysfunctions we’ll almost certainly encounter. Before you meet your relatives this season, take a few moments to sit quietly and acknowledge what you wish they were like. Then prepare to accept them even if they behave as they have always done in the past. At best you may be surprised to find that they actually are changing, that some of your wishes have come true. At worst you’ll feel regrettably detached from your kinfolk as you watch them play out their usual psychoses.

Strategy #2: Set Secure Boundaries

Given that your family members will probably go on being their same old selves, you need to decide how much contact with them you really want. Are there certain relatives you simply can’t tolerate? Are there others you can handle in group settings but not one-on-one? How much time and intimacy with your family is enough? How much is too much?

It’s crucial to answer these questions before, not during, a family gathering. Prior to the event, think through various boundary options until you come up with a scenario that makes you feel comfortable. Would you be more enthusiastic about a get-together if you planned to leave after no more than four hours? Or three? Two? One? Would you breathe easier if you rented a car so that you could get away without relying on relatives for transportation? Would it help to have a friend call you on your cell phone halfway through the evening, providing an excuse for a graceful exit?

Strategy #3: Lose Control

You’re in the middle of a holiday feast, enjoying your favorite pie and eggnog, when your mother leans over and whispers, “Honey, have you tried Weight Watchers?” Those six words may wither your very soul, challenging every ounce of self-acceptance you’ve gleaned from myriad self-help books, support groups, and several enlightened friends. You might feel desperate to make Mom recognize all the hard-won truths you’ve learned about the intrinsic value and beauty of your body. You’ll want to argue, to explain, to get right in there and force your mother to approve of your appearance. You are coming perilously close to whacking the tar baby.

Remember this: Any attempt you make to control other people actually puts you under their control. If you decide you can’t be happy until your mother finally understands you, her dysfunction will rule your life. You could spend the next 20 years trying to please her so much that she’d just have to accept you—and she still might not. Or you could hold her at gunpoint and threaten her into saying the words you want to hear, but you’ll never control her real thoughts and feelings. Never.

The only way you can avoid getting stuck in other people’s craziness is to follow codependency author Melody Beattie’s counterintuitive advice: “Unhook from their systems by refusing to try to control them.” Don’t violate your own code of values and ethics, but don’t waste energy trying to make other people violate theirs. If soul-searching has shown you that your mother’s opinions are wrong for you—as are your grandfather’s bigotry, your sister’s new religion, and your cousin’s alcoholism—hold that truth in your heart, whether or not your family members validate it. Feel what you feel, know what you know, and set your relatives free to do the same.

If you’ve been deeply wounded by your family, you can stop trying to control them by accepting full responsibility for your healing. I’m not suggesting you shoulder all the blame, but rather that you acknowledge that you and only you have the ability to respond to injury by seeking cures instead of furthering pain. Whatever the situation, accepting that you can control only your own thoughts and actions will help you mend more quickly and thoroughly.

Strategy #4: Become a Participant Observer

Some social scientists use a technique called participant observation, meaning that they join groups of people in order to watch and report on whatever those people do. Back when I was training to become a sociologist, I loved participant observation. People I might normally have avoided—criminals, fundamentalists, PTA presidents—became absolutely fascinating when I was participant-observing them. Almost any group activity is interesting when you’re planning to describe it later to someone who’s on your wavelength. Here are some approaches to help you become a participant observer of your own family.

Queen for a Day

This little game is based on the old TV show in which four women competed to see who had the most miserable life. The contestant judged most pathetic got, among other things, a washing machine in which to cleanse her tear-stained clothing. My version goes like this: Prior to a family function, arrange to meet with at least two friends—more, if possible—after the holidays. You’ll each tell the stories of your respective family get-togethers, then vote to see whose experience was most horrendous. That person will then be crowned queen, and the others will buy her lunch.

Comedy Club

In this exercise, you look to your family not for love and understanding but for comedy material. Watch closely. The more atrocious your family’s behavior is, the funnier it can be in the retelling. Watch stand-up comics to see the enormous fun they can have describing appalling marriages, ghastly parenting, or poisonous family secrets. When you’re back among friends, telling your own wild stories, you may find that you no longer suffer from your family’s brand of insanity; you’ve actually started to enjoy it.

Dysfunctional Family Bingo

This is one of my favorite games, though it involves considerable preparation. A few weeks before the holidays, gather with friends and provide each person with a bingo card. Each player fills in her bingo squares with dysfunctional phrases or actions that are likely to surface at her particular family party. For example, if you dread the inevitable “So when are you going to get married?” that question goes in one square of your bingo card. If your brother typically shows up crocked to the gills, put “Al is drunk” in another square, and so on.

Take your finished cards to your respective family gatherings. Whenever you observe something that appears on your bingo card, mark off that square. The first person to get bingo must sneak off to call the other players, and announce her victory. If no one has a full bingo, the person who has the largest number of filled-out squares wins the game. The winner shall be determined at the post-holiday meeting, where she will be granted the ever gratifying free lunch.

Strategy #5: Debrief

Even if you don’t play any participant observation games, it’s crucial to follow up on family events by debriefing with someone you love. If your brother really “gets” you, call him after a family dinner you’ve both survived. If you don’t trust anyone who shares a shred of your DNA, report to a friend or therapist. Generally speaking, you can schedule a debriefing session for a few weeks after the holidays, when everybody’s schedule is back to normal. However, you should exchange phone calls with your debriefing partners within a day or so of the family encounter, just to reconnect with the outside world and head off any annoying little problems, such as ill-considered suicide.

All of these strategies, from relinquishing hope of transformation to mimicking your relatives in riotous conversations with your friends, are designed to help you love your family unconditionally, in whatever way works best for you. They help you greet the tar baby with genuine affection, then walk away clear and happy. And that, in the end, may be the best holiday present you’ll ever give to the people you cherish most.