The Desire to Appear “Perfect” Amps Up Family Holiday Stress
Families often gaslight to project “perfect” holiday gathering.
Posted December 2, 2022 | Reviewed by Tyler Woods
- The pressure to be the perfect family during the holidays is so great that many pretend and project an idealized image on social media.
- Toxic positivity, the overgeneralization of an optimistic state that is applied to all situations, gaslights and denies authentic human emotion.
- An ongoing family dynamic of toxic positivity and avoidance leads to superficial relationships that may devolve into distance and estrangement.
More than any other time of year, the holidays are about expectation and fantasy. Commercials crowd every media platform, pushing images of just what the ideal family looks like, what they’re doing, and what they enjoy most. Often the focus is the holiday dinner table, where kin of all ages gather joyfully, beaming at one another and the bounteous spread before them. The family is basking in warmth, comfort, and love.
And it’s not just the ads. Holiday posts on social media—whether by friends, family, loved ones, or total strangers—aggressively promote holiday cheer with festive images and happy family photos. These images are real, but they’re also highly curated. Users distill their activities into a few words and photos, consciously displaying themselves in the most positive light.
The pressure to conform to this false model—on social media and in life—is so great that many resort to faking a jolly appearance, thereby spreading “toxic positivity”: the excessive and ineffective overgeneralization of a happy, optimistic state that is applied to all situations. This can be a form of group gaslighting (Merriam-Webster's word of the year 2022) where several family members attempt to deny another person's perception. In this atmosphere, family members skirt conflict and avoid any challenge or change by acting as if ongoing problems don’t exist. This behavior creates a family’s false narrative.
How family members pretend
Maintaining a false narrative allows some family members to continue enforcing their will without consequences, explains Whitney Goodman, a Florida therapist specializing in marriage and family issues and the author of Toxic Positivity. Toxic positivity results in the denial, minimization, and invalidation of authentic experiences and emotions.
Here are a few ways people engage in toxic positivity:
- Brushing off or glossing over problems rather than facing them
- Hiding true feelings
- Experiencing guilt for feeling sad or angry
- Trying to be stoic and ignore or "get over" problems
- Shaming others when they don't have a positive attitude
- Reciting feel-good quotes (appropriate or not)
- Minimizing other's feelings because they make the family uncomfortable
When people use toxic positivity, they often reflexively offer these pat responses:
- Following a catastrophe: “Everything happens for a reason.”
- “Look on the bright side,” or “Focus on the positives.”
- “Other people have it much worse.”
- Telling a new parent: “Enjoy every moment!”
- Telling a survivor of trauma: “I don’t understand why you choose to let this affect you? It happened in the past.”
- Shaming others for expressing anything other than positivity, or for not ‘bouncing back’ quickly enough.
Many families engage in toxic positivity by shutting down dissent, avoiding confrontation, and dismissing or ignoring complaints. Anyone who defies the projected perfect family image is challenged with these enabling statements:
- "That wasn't a big deal!"
- “That never happened."
- “You’re oversensitive.”
- “He didn’t mean it that way.”
- “You only have one brother/sister.”
- “Can’t you take a joke?”
- “You need to learn to let things go.”
- “There are two sides to every story."
- “Be the bigger person.”
Why do family members pretend everything is fine?
Pretending that everything’s fine makes some family members feel safe, especially when relatives manipulate or control others through gaslighting or abuse. Challenging these toxic tactics could lead to discord, and many fear a fallout worse than the original behavior. Consequently, when someone offends or pretends, family members swallow their hurts and look the other way.
Making matters worse, some simply don’t know how to resolve differences, having never developed such crucial communication skills as listening, cooling off, and apologizing. As a result, small disagreements may escalate and explode. Alternatively, people with poor communication skills may simply shut down and cut off when facing strife.
“When someone has no conflict resolution skills,” Goodman explains, “or they have been taught that ‘happiness’ or positivity is the only option, they may pretend everything is fine within the family.”
Often, people who are emotionally volatile and insecure resort to avoidance, refusing to acknowledge and discuss family issues. To outsiders, everything may look perfect and shine cheerily, but some insiders see past the façade. Eventually, family members may feel their reality has been denied. But no one wants to hear what they have to say, so they have no recourse. They may become increasingly uncomfortable with this false narrative. In time, these relationships feel superficial and inauthentic, devolving into distance and even estrangement.
If there’s a narcissist in the family, he or she may make a unique contribution to the false narrative. A narcissist will dissociate or completely erase memories, Goodman writes. “People with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) will have trouble integrating information inconsistent with what they believe to be true. This means they will deny conflicting information to keep a particular ‘image’ alive.”
How to cope:
Goodman and other therapists offer these suggestions to cope with toxic positivity:
- Be realistic about what you feel; look for meaning behind what you're going through.
- Change your own behavior and reactions.
- Don't be afraid to challenge the person being toxically positive.
- Accept that, for their own reasons, some people cannot admit there are issues.
- Set boundaries.
- Manage—but don’t deny—your negative emotions.
- Focus on listening to others and showing support.
- Know that it’s okay to experience more than one feeling.
- Put your feelings into words by writing in a journal or talking to a friend.
The holidays offer an opportunity to choose whether to perpetuate or challenge family myths. As Goodman writes, “You don't have to sacrifice your sanity to maintain someone else's narrative.”
Goodman, Whitney, "Everything is Not Alright," https://sitwithwhit.substack.com/p/everything-is-not-alright