Whether the holiday season represents celebrating the birth of Jesus or of exchanging gifts and spending time with family and friends (or both), many of us find ourselves especially stressed and overwhelmed during the month of December. The media sells us a Normal Rockwell portrait of joyful gatherings with extended family members complete with well-dressed and well-behaved children under the glow of Christmas tree lights exchanging the perfectly chosen and elegantly wrapped gift that is well received and duly appreciated, while the reality is we arrive late to the gathering with a store bought pie and last minute present shoved in a gift bag left over from Easter that we hope passes for Christmas because of the glitter on the handle. That distant aunt you only see once a year is asking why you aren't wearing the lovely sweater she bought you last year and you are picturing it in the GoodWill bag, long gone. You wonder if those once-a-year-relatives are perceiving that you are: thinner, heavier, still single, newly single, about to be single, still jobless, on the verge of being jobless, or otherwise lacking in some way. All of your insecurities and fears surface as your childhood self hijacks your adult self and all of the patterns you swore you left behind when you left home latch into place as you enter the twilight zone that is the family of origin.
A family is a system that thrives on homeostasis. Systems like to be in balance. Healthy systems rely on honest and direct communication, authenticity, and respect for diversity to remain in balance, while unhealthy systems rely on manipulation, passive aggressive communication styles, domination and control to stay stable. When individuals who have left an unhealthy family system and learned healthier styles of relating and communicating return to their family of origin for a holiday visit, they often find themselves being pressured to occupy their usual position in the toxic system in order not to disrupt its functioning. Refusing to cooperate results in various forms of pressure, then punishment, and ultimately exile, as others in the system are not ready or willing to examine the changes they would have to make in order to accommodate this healthier person into the family system. Being the first one in your family to make positive, healthy changes can feel lonely and almost not worth the consequences if one is viewed as a troublemaker or pariah by other family members. Re-entering a dysfunctional family of origin requires a lot of support and reminders of the growth and healing that have allowed you to become a healthier and happier version of yourself. Here are some reminders as you enter in these possibly turbulent times:
1. "You can only be in control of yourself. " You cannot control other people or their emotions. How they respond to you and to each other is up to them. You do not have be the mediator, buffer, negotiator, or controller of your family dynamics. Let everyone have their own direct relationship with each other, no matter how messy that looks and feels. Everyone needs to work out their own relationship dynamics for themselves. (This does not include young children. As the parent you are absolutely responsible for protecting them from unsafe adults and toxic patterns of relating).
2. "Be authentic within the boundaries of safety." Some people are not safe to reveal your entire self to. This does not mean that we need to create a false persona to be around those people, as being healthy always requires us to be authentic and honest. However, we can limit how much of ourselves we share with those who are unkind, critical, condemning, and lacking acceptance. Those people are not capable of responding to our confidences appropriately so it is wise to limit how much of our inner self we reveal to them.
3. "Practice self-compassion." Self compassion is sometimes confused with self pity. Self pity involves being a victim and feeling sorry for oneself. Self compassion, on the other hand, acknowledges that a certain situation or relationship is challenging and validates the struggle you are having in that area. Self compassion says, "This is hard for me. I can have grace for myself in this situation. It is not my fault that I am struggling."
4. "Don't confuse acceptance with approval." Acceptance of the way a person is behaving or the way a situation is unfolding does mean "I like this; I want this; this is good." Acceptance merely means: "This is what it is." If we refuse to accept that something is real or actually happening then we are using all of our energy to fight the reality of the situation rather than using our resources to make it better. Acceptance is acknowledging what is really occurring rather than what we think should be happening, or wish were happening instead. Acceptance is a vital prerequisite to empowering us to make choices about how we are going to respond to the reality that confronts us. The opposite of acceptance is denial, which may feel better in the moment but causes us a lot of problems in the long run.
5. "The only person you can change is yourself." You cannot change other people. Not the way they think, feel, behave, believe, dress, or chew their food. You can, however, change your attitude about other people, to see their broken-ness, the pain that has led them to behave in possibly hurtful ways towards you, the insecurity or feelings of unworthiness that drive them to criticize or belittle you and others, the fears that prevent them from hearing or accepting you, the wounds that they are so busy hiding they can't even see the ones you are trying to show them. Self-compassion leads to compassion for others. Start with yourself. You will be amazed at how much accepting your wonderful, messy, broken, healing self will allow you to accept the challenging people in your family.