Family gatherings around the holidays are meant to be joyful times of celebration with loved ones. Unfortunately for many, they can be triggering, stressful, and challenging. This is especially true for incest survivors, as our stories are often hidden within the fragile frameworks of our family systems, or, require us to leave our families altogether. If you’re a survivor, you know the complexities of these realities all too well.
As an incest survivor, I want to share some tips I’ve learned to support survivors as they manage family gatherings, as well as help allies better understand the complexities of this season for many of us.
Plan for Boundaries
If you’re planning on attending an intimate family gathering, create some boundaries for yourself in advance. For example, you could define a specific time limit that you’ll stay for and keep your eyes glued to the clock. Or, you can directly avoid speaking with the people who make you feel unsafe. If they approach you, say a polite, “Hello,” and then excuse yourself to the restroom to catch your breath or to the kitchen for another snack.
If there’s assigned seating at your family functions, you can call the host in advance and ask to be seated away from certain people. If you’re not comfortable sharing the reason, feel free to invent a story. Write it down before the call and read it, so you don’t forget in the moment of stress. You have the right to craft a narrative that helps you stay as safe as possible within your environment. If the event isn’t going well, then have an exit strategy planned in advance. Say you’re not feeling well and just go home, no further explanations needed.
Prepare a Follow Up Call
Set up a call with a loving friend, fellow survivor, or professional for the day after the event so that you have someone to help you vent and manage triggers, while you bring your brain, body, and being back to safety.
Plan a Solo Retreat Day
There are so many social expectations to spend time with family, particularly around celebrations like birthdays or the holidays. But don’t be afraid to pass on invites or spend holidays by yourself. Make a plan to do something you’ve always wanted and haven’t yet done. Is there a lineup of movies you’ve been wanting to watch, books you’ve wanted to read, or an outdoor activity you’ve been meaning to do? Create a schedule to keep yourself engaged, then take a deep breath and enjoy the new space you’ve created for yourself.
Often grief will fill the empty space. Try and hold it gently. Grief is a sign that you’re missing something that you should’ve had. You should have a safe family system to celebrate events and holidays. That’s true. Let your grief speak, then honor the bravery of your choices and let yourself also hold gratitude for your safety.
Attend a Friend’s Event
It’s considered socially inappropriate to invite yourself over to people’s houses. But as an incest survivor, I give you full permission to do so. If you don’t want to spend the day with your family and you don’t want to be alone, then avoid anxiety by checking in early with your friends about what they’re planning on doing for the holiday. They may ask you what your plans are. Simply say you haven’t made any yet. If they offer an invite to their gathering and you’d like to attend, then say yes.
I have found that so many safe families are more than happy to open their homes to people looking for companionship over the holidays. I used to feel awkward at the family celebrations of others as an outsider. You may too. Embrace the awkwardness. Being uncomfortable in unfamiliar spaces is better than being unsafe. Comfort and calm can come eventually as trust builds. Additionally, honor your survivor instincts.
Most families have various levels of dysfunction that you may be really sensitive to as a survivor. Remember to set boundaries in the homes of others as well. You don’t need to fight or fix anything in anyone else’s family system. If there’s conflict, just be aware of it, keep yourself safe using the strategies you know, and consider a new home for your next holiday or event.
Host a Celebration
The most significant part of my healing journey has been to build a new support system made up of safe and supportive friends. Chances are there are a number of people you know who also need a home for the holidays or something to do instead of attending a dreaded family function. Maybe for the same reason as you or maybe for different reasons: family challenges, geographical distance, etc. So, why don’t you host a small in-person gathering or a virtual event?
Hosting is a great option because it gives you total agency over the holiday plans. Only people who you know are safe are invited to the table or virtual platform.
Volunteer for Your Neighbors
Often community organizations and nonprofits need volunteers to help serve holiday meals to neighbors in need. Consider calling local churches and food kitchens to see if they need an extra hand this holiday season and get to know your neighbors!
Work For the Day
Need some extra cash? If your employer offers overtime, work a little extra over the holiday to save for some self-care rituals. Or get a temporary job at the many retail locations that need more staffing for the holiday shopping rushes. If you have a long to-do list of items that have been pushed aside, prioritize them this holiday season to get caught up for the new year.
. . .
Remember that there is no one right way to manage surviving and recovering from incest abuse. As an adult, you get to decide what’s best for you, which is such an empowering thing. So, own your choice at each stage of your healing process. Allow your options to be fluid as you grow and continue to heal.
My friend, Katie, a fellow incest survivor, shares, “There is no right or wrong way of doing this, it’s about finding ways to help ourselves balance our different parts and the complex nature of family and life circumstances.”
As a survivor, I always hope your days are healing for you. I hope you are able to surround yourself with people who provide corrective experiences for you. Those who reinforce that you are loved, valued, and appreciated. Most importantly, those who teach you that you deserve to be safe. If these privileges aren’t available to you, then I hope that you come up with clever and creative ways to manage your safety however you choose. If nothing else, I hope you just get through the family celebrations throughout the year. Know that I’m thinking of you.
- Josephine A. Lauren
Josephine A. Lauren (she/they) is an author, activist, and incest survivor. She has been published in outlets like Ms. Magazine and Spirituality & Health. Every month, Jo. authors a new piece to subscribers on Substack, RoadHEAD: Where Travel Meets Mental Exploration. As the cofounder and community organizer of Incest AWARE, Jo. serves an alliance seeking to improve methods of incest prevention, intervention, recovery, and justice. Say hello to Jo. on her website, subscribe to her Substack, or follow ber on Instagram.