Thought for the week: Family Holiday Season
For many, seeing family during this time of year is no “Holiday”, but it can be.
Many people are heading into this holiday season with hesitant anticipation of visiting time with family. Others would do anything for the presence of family at this time of year, if not a little family drama, in their lives. Both scenarios are not only survivable, but offer opportunities for reflection, growth and learning. Not all families are dysfunctional or difficult, but there is emotion in all families, whether expressed or not, and this emotion can wreak havoc on your expectations.
One helpful strategy for family visits this season is to identify potential stressors before the event. Evaluate your historical responses to these stressors to tease out trigger points ahead of time. Seeing family is difficult on so many levels. After a few hours of catching up, you may suddenly find yourself acting like the kid you used to be, as any family system can pull its members back into their old roles and behaviors. This can be frustrating. You’ve worked hard to become who you are and it might feel like your family still sees you as you were. The truth is, you might also be seeing them as they were.
Check your expectations before heading into family time. You may be determined to be different this time around, to not fall into that old role, or to make sure the family sees you as who you are today. Beware of this approach. You have control over what you chose to believe and think about others, not vice versa. Counting on changing their views and reactions may set you up for some big disappointments.
Sometimes the most difficult part of family time is the encounter you have with parts of yourself in the midst of family. Old hurts, unmet needs – seeing family is like looking into the mirror of time, reflecting back to who you were. The negative emotions from your past shout out much louder than the positive ones. Consciously or not, your brain will naturally focus on the parts you perceive as negative, the parts of who you were that you don’t necessarily want to see. These reminders can sneak up to the surface unexpectedly. They may leak out slowly or come pouring out quickly but the end result can be bouts of drama, small or large.
Consider approaching family time in the role of an observer rather than going in cold hoping you or someone else doesn’t get caught up in that same old routine (i.e. reactor mode). As an observer you have the opportunity to learn more about yourself and others during family gatherings. Rather then react to the dreaded awkward or hurtful encounters with people who let you down, try to notice patterns of behavior or communications between people. Picture yourself as a member of the audience watching a performance of stage. Note what personality traits you share with other family members. You can analyze these later if you like, but for now, just observe. Observing and accepting vs. fighting and reacting will point you in the direction of finding compassion for others. Compassion for others means more compassion for self.
If you are not seeing family during the holidays make sure to take note on how you feel about this. Be specific. Write it down. Exposing these feelings to your conscious mind helps keep them from seeping out in unexpected moments, but even more so allows you the opportunity to reframe the feelings once you realize what they are. Clarity makes for more enjoyable planning of your own traditions like volunteering at a soup kitchen, having lunch or dinner with friends, or going for a hike.
With family that is truly toxic, give yourself permission to stay away. The permission to say to yourself, “No, I will not force myself to submit to this just because I should, just because it is the holiday”, can offer opportunities for growth and learning as well. To experience yourself standing up for yourself and replacing toxic family with your chosen family of friends is a wonderful, healing, self-care tradition.
Whether spending the holidays with family or not, or purposely keeping your distance, remember the importance of having an emotional plan along with your schedule of events. Families pass along gifts and wisdom as well as grief and pain. Observing and accepting family members as they are is a refreshing alternative to playing a part in the routine family drama. It only takes one person to shift the emotional atmosphere of a situation. Finding compassion for others eases tensions and allows you to approach yourself with greater compassion. What a nice gift to give to yourself!