Ho Ho Ho-ly Hell: It's Family Time
What do you get when you mix family, alcohol, overeating, stilted conversations, dogmatic political views, and intergernerational madness? Well, the most wonderful time of the year, of course! Fasten your pscyhic seatbelts, people: it's holiday season. And I hate to break it to you, but, for most of us, Adele won't save the day.
Some of you are fortunate enough to sip spiced cider with the sweetest of siblings and scions. There are carols and candles and cookies and kisses to spare. Gods bless you -- or rather, the gods have blessed you. For some of us, though, the mere passage of Thanksgiving is enough to ignite dread, as we brace for any one of the many manifestations of familial dysfunction that derive their fuel from festivities. Maybe you try to prepare. You do your "communication calisthenics." For example, let's say your Aunt Allupinmyshit asks you every December, "When are you going to find a nice boy and settle down?" You might want to say, "I'll settle down when you shut the hell up" or "You mean a nice GIRL, right?" but you know neither is likely to make the day any easier (if in fact that is your goal). So you rehearse the forced smile, the feigned insouciance, the shrugging and saccharine "Someday!" These perfunctory answers may quiet Auntie Allup, but they often leave us feeling frustrated, hurt, angry, or anything other than celebratory. Alas, we find ourselves with little to do other than locate all exits with the casual but critical precision of an airline attendant and pray that we're stricken with food poisoning.
There are more than a few sound reasons for speaking up, and likely there are as many for sucking it up. For some of us it can be healthier to skip dinner at mom's house entirely. But for countless others among us, these familial connections, no matter how fraught with passive-aggressive disapproval, are a large part of that which sustains us. Whether to endure wihout protest, to set boundaries, or to bail entirely is a decision that is not only wholly personal and unique but also dependent on the specific family system, its history, and the unique traits of all involved. So while I cannot, in this short format, suggest with any specificity a right or wrong way to approach your family holidays, I can tell you three, hopefully helpful things:
1) People who tell you that you "should just be thankful you have a family," usually haven't been told by their grandmother every year for 20 that they'd have such a pretty face if it weren't for those ten extra pounds nor listened to their father go on for 45 minutes about how he, too, would shoot a hoodie-cloaked teen running from a store because this is America, goddamit! That (infuriatingly) said, I think we all know that a warm home and a full meal are blessings that our texting-calloused, iPhone 6S-gripping hands aren't even big enough to carry. One can hold both of these realities, though, and I think one should: you are lucky to have food and family, and sometimes you'd rather go to the dentist than spend an evening with those people.
2) You are not crazy, immature, unevolved, or petty if your mother's megalmomania reduces you to tears. Rather, you are a human being who exists not only as the adult who drove (or rode or walked) to mom's house but also as the child who once didn't have the skills to tell her what hurts. The part of your brain that holds emotional memories but with no timeline, no sense of how old you are or where you are, doesn't always know that you have options other than silence, rage, or tears. And the part of your brain that does know can't see clearly through all that cortisol, adrenaline, and dopamine. The good news? You can learn how to metaphorically windshield-wipe your way to a tempered response. The best gas-mask for those stress reactions is practice. Practice what, you ask? Well, that's #3. Stay with me, peeps: we are almost there.
3) There are -- I promise -- ways to get through the time with your more challenging family members without sacrficing your own truth. And since I need to save my own energy for the 75-minute conversation I will have in a few weeks about why I have to ruin Christmas by serving ravioli instead of ham, I'm going to leave the explanation of this particular set of skills to the master, my dear friend and the impossibly brilliant therapist, Astrid Schmidt. A few years ago, Astrid published on her own site a "Holiday Survival Guide" that I've excerpted and pasted towards the end of this post. Astrid's five stratgegies for getting through without getting hurt saved my head from exploding during Christmas 2013. They also stopped me from throwing my plate on the floor at Thanksgiving 2014. Last year, I printed them out and carried them in my bag for most of November and December. And, okay, FINE, I might have been rocking back and forth in the closet yesterday while reading her words over and over. Nah, I'm just kidding. It was a bathroom, not a closet.
Yes, even therapists need support; even some therapists want to strangle their parents and in-laws; even therapists fantasize about filling Uncle Dick's mouth with mashed potatoes to mute the sound of his bigoted drivel. And just because we may know how to navigate these emotionally rocky territtories does not mean we are immune to the stress-induced hormone surge that can make what we know entirely inaccessible when we are deep in those...what are they called again....oh yeah! Feelings. So without further ado, I offer Astrid's sanity-saving brilliance:
A little preparation can go a long way. Here are 5 tips to minimize toxicity and give you the best shot at having meaningful, contactful time with your loved ones.
1. Take your pulse. Keep a gentle, mindful eye on what is happening for you internally. Notice how you feel before a conversation starts. Then check back in 5 minutes later. Are you breathing? Are you anxious? Are you angry? Did you just eat 5 cookies? Keeping a finger on the pulse of your experience will give you the greatest leverage for taking care of yourself in the moment.
2. Make Boundaries. A healthy boundary means being willing to adjust to take care of your needs-- not your brother’s or mom’s-- first. It means leaving 2 days earlier than planned if the environment becomes toxic. Instead of letting your mom get away with making remarks about your appearance that drive you nuts, say “Mom, I know you care about me AND I really don’t like it when you comment on how I look. It makes me uncomfortable. Would you mind keeping those thoughts to yourself?” Say it with love and compassion. Say it with an authentic smile, because you love this woman. She makes you crazy, but you can help her make you less crazy.
3. Visualize. If you know you will be seeing a ‘certain someone’ that pushes all of your buttons, anticipate a challenging moment that might occur and visualize yourself handling it in a way where you remain in integrity while being kind and loving with the other person. This will calm your central nervous system and help you move more gracefully into said person’s vicinity.
4. Remember that you are an adult. You are a bona-fide adult! How quickly we can forget when around family. You are not small, victimized and left with no choices or power. You are 100% in control, which means you can engage in or stop any conversation you choose. You decide how people speak to you. Steer your interactions from this seat of adult consciousness.
5. Take care of your child. Your inner-child that is. Your hurt inner child has the potential to become triggered. Before you start your travels, think about her and see how old she looks. Tell her that you will be taking care of her throughout the week and that she is safe with you. Keep her in your consciousness. If you find yourself being triggered, you can go to a private room and connect with and soothe her. For example, you can hold a pillow and rock it as though it was the smaller part of you that is hurt. If you feel too activated/upset, find a private space to be held and nurtured: wrap yourself in a warm blanket and imagine being cradled. Take a warm bath. Enlist support. Ask your partner for a hug. Call a friend.
Anticipation and mindfulness are the name of the game. These tips are subtle yet quite effective at shaking you out of the habitual role you play in your family. Keep in mind that your loved ones may become annoyed, upset, angry. This is alright. One of my favorite mantras right now is "I'm ok, even if you're not ok." Put that one in your pocket. This is not easy work but it's how we wrestle ourselves free from childhood and really, fully, step into our adult lives.
I think it's important to note that you are not doing this inner work to become the Family Douchebag. A lot of what is suggested here may mistakenly come across as selfish, but when you move from your heart, you are working on behalf of yourself and your family. Two days of authentic contact spent with your family is better for everyone than 5 days where you are crawling out of your skin. (Reprinted with permission from Astrid Schmidt, LCSW)
Whoomp, there it is. I could not have said it better myself, and I can attest to the effectiveness of these techniques -- I have the intact dinner plate to prove it.
Before I close and return to my own communication calisthenics, I want to reach out to those of you for whom this post is wholly moot. Perhaps you would take any amount of brood rudeness (or "clantics," as I like to call them in my ongoing effort to put the fun is dysfunction) over being alone at the holidays. That loneliness is one many of us will never know, and it deserves more focused care than can be folded into this post. So, for now, please accept my IOU as well as the assurance that I, like so many other social justice-informed healers and helpers, are working every day to make accessible to you the support and comfort that right now may feel forever elusive. And, on that note, I remind the rest of us that sometimes the easiest way to endure your parent's criticism or your partner's eggnog habit is to take a look inside that privilege backpack with which you feel so saddled and count your blessings. If that doesn't help, spend half the holiday with creepy cousin Clyde and his catalog of taxidermied critters and the other half making dinner for a few people without the resources or company to do so themselves. You might find next year's round of "Who Can Make the Most Thinly Veiled Racist Remark?" infinitely less triggering. In any case, I'll be chanting Astrid's words right along with you.
Have your own holiday horrors to honor? A question about how to handle a particularly obnoxious relative? Please write up a storm in the comments! I'll answer every one -- I can't guarantee I'll help, but I can guarantee I will hear you. Likewise, if you're a reader who hasn't commented but have words of wisdom for one who has, please share. We weren't meant to do this thing -- this life thing, I mean -- alone. Let's try to do it together.