Navigating the Triggers of a Dysfunctional Family


Many sensitive, caring people need to take it slowly with family get-togethers as they can often feel too much from them. There may be more noise, drinking, and loud voices than they can tolerate.

Families are living organisms. The health and behavior of its members contribute to its overall wellness. In a healthy family, you learn to identify your needs and feelings; you receive consistent, loving messages from your parents; and your authenticity is valued. A dysfunctional family lacks clear boundaries. Shaming and blaming occur. One family member may become a scapegoat, communication is poor, and parents may be struggling with substance abuse or their own emotional distress or trauma.

If you come from a dysfunctional family, it’s wise to accept the limitations of each of the members and lower your expectations. Setting polite but clear boundaries with toxic behavior stops you from becoming a doormat. Also recognize how your relatives emotionally trigger you. Acknowledge that these emotional triggers can shine light on your wounds so you can heal them. Healing your triggers is liberating because you won’t be thrown off or drained by people’s inappropriate comments. They may still be annoying, but they won’t have the power to zap you. For instance, when someone criticizes your choices, see this as a chance to set healthy boundaries and examine the tender areas within where your self-esteem may be fragile. Or if someone throws you crumbs of love, it’s powerful to say, “I deserve so much more.”

Once you can recognize your emotional triggers then at family gatherings you can choose how to respond in a calm, neutral way. If someone tries to lure you into a negative interaction such as pitting you against your sister, simply refuse to get hooked. You may be unable to control your family, but you can take charge of your behavior. This emotional freedom liberates you from dysfunctional families and negative thoughts.

Here are five tips from my book Thriving as an Empath: 365 Days of Self-Care for Sensitive People to help all sensitive souls take special care of themselves during the holidays.

  • If you decide to join family and friends for good food, comradery, and laughter, sit next to someone you like and take a few short rest breaks to center yourself.
  • If you prefer being with a small group of friends rather than attending larger gatherings and feel more comfortable with just one or a few people, honor that need.
  • Practice saying a loving “no” to invitations or limit the time you socialize so you don’t feel trapped.
  • Choose quiet “sensory friendly” activities such as a concert or a museum.
  • Stay at home, watch a movie, cuddle with your partner or animals, meditate, cook a delicious meal, listen to music, or simply rest.

Set your intention. I will not allow myself to get emotionally drawn into my family’s dysfunctional dynamics. I will set clear boundaries with relatives. It is not my job to fix my family. I will acknowledge how I have freed myself from negative relationships, emotional patterns, or situations of hardship. I will be happy with my progress.

(Adapted from Dr. Judith Orloff’s Thriving as an Empath: 365 Days of Self-Care for Sensitive People, now available in paperback)

7 thoughts on “Navigating the Triggers of a Dysfunctional Family

  1. I have had several premonitions come true and sat meditating at two, having had a photo taken, spirit comes to me. I have had a dysfunctional family who had me diagnosed with psychiatric illness. My mother took out fraudulent power of attorney enduring to make money off my gift and creative abilities.
    I read your book Second Sight and am looking forward to reading others. I also want to engage you online in a professional basis.

  2. I have been told that Im a highly sensitive empath by two spychics as well as a light that causes spirits to seek me out. It does seem every house I move to is haunted and turns many unbelievers into believers. It does take me along time to unwind when I. Around a large group and I can feel when I’m not wanted. I can easily pick up on negative emotions as well as high positive emotions its very draining and I often can’t sleep if I’m over stimulated. Any advice to balance. I was told I need to learn and accept my gifts and to be open to them but these gifts can and do scare me.

  3. I’ve just recently discovered about Empaths. I’ve read some good info. but there didn’t seem to be much validation for it. Finally, knowing there are others like myself & Professionals specializing in it is truly amazing. I’m an Intuitive Empath. Deeply Gifted but its been more of a Damning curse in many area’s of my life. Its NOT easy to be able to sense Truth from Lies, even though majority believe the illusions/lies. Looking your books Dr. Orloff. Knowing you are also an Intuitive Empath gives me have Hope that I can learn your coping strategies & possibly thrive in lieu of simply surving the fallout of such a powerful Gift. Would like to meet others like you/I/us in future. Imagine a Think Tank with Intuitive Empaths? Imagine if we were recognized as real, human Lie Detectors. Might be dangerous in today’s political SOTU.

  4. These are good reminders that we must do what is BEST FOR US as individuals and not get swamped by the dysfunctional wave which often intensifies around the holidays and occasions. It seems that even minor events ‘must’ get complicated for some groups while most of us empaths prefer simplicity. YES, find a place to step out for some fresh air during these energy draining days if you can’t get into the spirit of doing a cookie exchange and then talking about the ingredients for 2 hours! Outta here.

  5. Thank you so much for this beautiful much needed intention. Since I have started making intentions and doing affirmations, it is helping me a lot for me to be grounded. One of the worst things that I was going through was anxiety and overwhelming. I just get thrown off so quickly by even a little emotional trigger from my relatives and friends. Setting the intentions given in the book, Thriving as an Empath is helping me a lot to bring my energies back to me. I am so grateful to you Judith and I have no words to show my gratitude.

    Best Regards,


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