As the holidays approach, many of us will find ourselves with family and good friends. What holds the promise for good times, however, often turns sour when our buttons get pushed. So, in the spirit of making the most of the holidays, keeping the energy flowing (if only with ourselves), and giving ourselves the greatest gift, let’s consider our options for how to work with the upsetting moments when someone else seems to be spoiling the fun.
First, we have to acknowledge that what we fear about difficult family dynamics is feeling psychological pain. This is normal and natural. No one wants to feel needless pain. So, the choice to spend time with anyone on the holidays is entirely up to us.
In fact, an intractable and overwhelming sense of obligation to be around certain people on the holidays can itself reach back to what was demanded of us as children and the ways that our hearts were used to please others at the expense of our own enjoyment. The reality of making the decision not to spend time with certain people, however, is often not cut and dry, as I’ll discuss a bit later. However, if we spend holiday time with parents, we might also feel a heartfelt desire to be there with, and for, our parents (and any others) that is not born of guilt. I refer to an unconditional love that comes from our genuine compassion and care, one that can be difficult to tease out from our sense of obligation.
So, this presents the first self-awareness learning of holiday time: how much of our desire to be with family stems from compulsive childhood obligation where we had to be there for our parents and/or siblings at our own expense, and how much comes from that unconditional, mature, loving adult part of us? Childhood guilt will often feel like a deep, uncomfortable, torn desire tinged with anger or resentment, while an unconditional desire will feel more clear, whole, robust and good inside, usually tinged only with superficial afterthoughts of doubt.
Family get-togethers threaten the parts of us that still experience the challenging dynamics of childhood. Painful images and body memories can easily be brought back to life, as if we were reliving the past. And in a sense, we are, for the past is not gone, but lives inside and affects us in insidious ways until we allow our body to release the anger, guilt, remorse, sadness, fear, and helplessness that we weren’t able to process in the past because we were just children without the resources to do so. Once we release some of this steam and love ourselves in the process, our triggers become less intense. This triggering can seem counterproductive to enjoying the holidays, but it also can be a gift. To receive the gift, however, we need to understand why it is a gift.
When friends and patients share with me their fear of visiting family members with whom they have difficult dynamics, I encourage them to consider the bright side of this, as I have for myself on many occasions. If we embrace our inner emotional work, visits with family that trigger us can show us the path to our freedom. Emotional triggers are not obstacles to self-realization, but the path itself, as they show us where our hearts need healing. Because it can be difficult to get in touch with our core wounds and the negative effects of difficult parenting, holiday time can be a way to jumpstart this inner work. It might even inspire a New Year’s resolution to comprehensively heal the wonderful parts of us that have been shut-down and sabotaged for too long. The result of this inner work is to revive our full selves and live more fully, passionately, and joyfully. I can’t imagine a better gift than this!
I think many idealise the holidays and imagine they should be perfect, full of only joy, unlike the rest of our days. This image of the holidays is perpetuated by mass culture media. Even if we don’t buy into all the consumerism propaganda, we might still hold onto the ideal that the holidays should be pure joy. This can set us up for disappointment and entitled anger when holiday time doesn’t live up to our ideals. However, if we enter the holidays with a more level-headed approach, and with fewer unreasonable expectations, we might be better prepared to handle any challenges that arise. Being honest and realistic—without letting ourselves get overly dramatic and presumptuously upset—can go a long way towards enjoying more and suffering less.
When we get along with certain family members and not others, this can mean sacrificing time with people we enjoy just because one or two spoil the fun. This in itself can be upsetting and frustrating. For this reason, I encourage you to consider a win-win approach of alternating outer enjoyment with inner work, if time with good friends and family proves challenging. This honours the full reality of the holidays, and everyday life. Best of all, it means that we get to spend time with the people we enjoy and we get to learn from the people we don’t enjoy.
Celebrating the joyful and the not so joyful is a win-win, a jolly balance of Yin and Yang:
Yang (light and easy) gets to win because we get to have fun with the people we enjoy and experience unconditional love with those we need to help out of genuine care. Yin (dark and difficult) also wins because we gain insights, activation, and healing for those parts of us that negatively impact our days all year long. This way, we learn more about the places we need to give love to ourselves.
Again, to diminish our holiday fear, apprehension, and anxiety requires that we embrace our healing work and recognise that the past still affects us. This is not only experientially evident but scientifically accurate because the complex of neurons, hormones, neuropeptide pathways, and brain maps that experienced specific emotional events of the past still exist inside us, always exerting their influence beneath our conscious awareness. During the holidays we can get reacquainted with them. Ironically, as we find this inner path back to wholeness, we enact what the holidays were originally all about.
Personally, I’m a bit of a die-hard, and during my years of intense inner work, I sincerely appreciated the opportunities I had with family members that triggered me. This helped me in crucial ways because the dynamics of the present mirrored my past and gave me good clues to just how difficult and painful life once was . . . experiences I had forgotten but that still lived inside me, beneath my everyday awareness. Because these places are still alive in us is why we get triggered intensely. Of course, even without painful pasts, as people alive in the moment we don’t like being mistreated. But childhood wounds have a certain deep punch to them; they illicit strong reaction, if only inside of us.
When triggered, I would “sit with” the information and memories generated by these triggers in order to let my deep body inform me more about my core feelings and past experiences. This would also help me uncover more information inside me to fill in a fuller picture of the past. In sum, my painful times as an adult with parents and other family members has helped me heal in ways I couldn’t have without them.
If you don’t agree with or see the benefit of this path to healing, or simply want to avoid upset at any cost, then choose whatever you like. If, however, you want to try out what is proposed here, I have put together some specific suggestions to help guide you in navigating this exciting yet sometimes dreadful time of year. All the below suggestions entail the broad dynamics of a) looking inside for the deeper wounds triggered b) proper thinking, patience, humility, and compassion c) setting boundaries to take care of ourselves in present-time, as adults and d) expressing our needs to those who can hear them.
Note, this list is not comprehensive and I invite you to embellish and modify them to suit your needs. All these work for non-holiday moments as well.
11 Tips for Gifting Ourselves
1) Minimise Reaction
When someone pisses you off or does something that annoys or hurts you, try not to react by fighting back, unless it is overtly violent (as opposed to milder and incidental) and you have to defend yourself. Instead, try to sit with what has happened, just note it, feel what gets stirred in you, and try to stay outwardly neutral. You can also express your needs to the would-be offender, but not before you consider suggestion #2.
2) Get the Facts Straight
Before you go too far into reacting or extrapolating your story, or expressing your needs, clarify your assumptions of what happened. Misunderstandings are human and happen all the time. So, first get the facts straight. This is a good example of one of the many ways that good thinking helps our emotional lives, and therefore our ability to be loving. For example, let’s say that Mum doesn’t seem to respond when you ask her a question, or doesn’t seem to acknowledge your point. Consider that you might have misunderstood her response (after all, you too are human). Also, don’t assume that Mum heard you at all. To make sure that Mum did hear you, you can ask, “Mum, did you notice that I asked you a question?” Or, “Mum, I see you are busy, but did you hear my question and do you understand it?” Once you get clear, you can proceed.
In getting the facts straight, we have to notice what we have come to believe about a given interaction, as well as noticing if we are emotionally triggered. This helps us know what to ask to get the facts straight and to simmer down in order to think straight. For example, I would ask Mum if she heard me because I am aware that I believe Mum did not hear me. I ask to find out. Or, if I know that I have a core wound of not being heard, I can tend to feel unheard even when the other has heard me. So, I check into my reaction, let myself calm down, assess the situation rationally, and then ask to discover what’s true in reality.
3) Simmer Down
Sometimes we have to calm down just to hear the facts and let them sink in. When we get emotionally triggered, our emotions can obscure rationality. We feel hurt and we react from a hurt place. Often we misconstrue what has been said or done, which can cause us to react, accuse, and attack, especially when we perceive being misunderstood. Ironically enough, this assumption-making and defensiveness can be an issue that others have with us!
So, to take care of our own side of the equation (our integrity), reserve final judgement until we have simmered down and checked our reactions with the facts before making assumptions. We can ask for clarity on what we heard, or what the person meant by their actions and words. If we are not able to get clarity, then we simply rest with our hurt and upset, lick our wounds, and how they might relate to our past. This is some light-duty shadow work.
4) Express Needs Non-Violently
When triggered, and in as neutral tone as possible, try to express your needs non-violently to the would-be offender. For example, if after fact-checking you discover that Mum did not respond to you, and indeed did understand you, or even ignored you, you can ask for your needs while expressing your intent for caring interaction. Using Non-Violent Communication (NVC) terms to express yourself needs can be helpful, especially if you don’t think you’ll be ridiculed. You can use this format:
When you do ___________ I feel ________.
Could you please/would you mind ____________?
An example might be, “Mum, when you don’t respond to me, I feel disappointed/sad/alone. Could you please acknowledge my comments when you have a moment? This way I experience being acknowledged and feel closer to you.” You can also express your need without expressing how you feel about it, if this feels safer and more appropriate. This could look like, “Mum, I see you are busy, but could you please respond to me.” Helpful tip: you want to try to express this in a neutral tone, even though you might be feeling frustrated. Remember, in many instances you are going to be the more mature and aware adult here; it’s up to you to be that person even in light of childish, defensive behaviour from others. Your goal is love and peace, so step up to the plate and make the compassionate effort, without expressing your judgements! Creating a “bridge” is helpful.
5) Make a Bridge, Acknowledge Other
Expressing our needs is best done while also acknowledging the circumstance of the other, especially if they are compromised. Notice in example #4 it says, “Mum, I notice you are busy…” This is acknowledging the circumstances of the other. Mum might be welcoming other guests, minding the children, or running around the kitchen trying to get dinner in order, and might not have the head space to be with you. Acknowledging her situation helps her feel acknowledged and increases your chance of being received and heard. Also, if you notice she is busy, best to talk to her when she is free and not set yourself up for disappointment.
So, to make a bridge, acknowledge Mum’s situation. Again, you can say something like, “Mum, I see that you are busy, but when I speak with you, I’d appreciate it if you could answer me, or at least acknowledge my comment and say if you’ll get with me later.” The bridge here is noticing Mum is busy and acknowledging this. If Mum snaps back at you, you can simply desist from the interaction and try again later and/or limit your exposure to attacking communication and lick your wounds. And, if it truly amounts to small stuff for you, then don’t sweat it.
6) Get quiet, Trace to Past
When you have some quiet time to reflect, notice where in your body your upset comes from, where you feel triggered. See if you can find a felt-sense (body-centred) recollection of a similar dynamic in the past. For example, if you notice that your mother does not listen to you, see if that is true of your past by both a) mentally scanning your memory of the past and b) feeling if it is true in your body and if your body (which includes your mind/awareness in your body) remembers this. Note, this issue in question (not being heard/acknowledged) does not have to have happened with your mother in the past for you to feel triggered by your mother in the present. In other words, if for example you did not “feel heard” by Dad in the past, Mum or anyone else can trigger this in you.
7) Find Support
Consider taking some time to journal what you are feeling, speak with a close friend, supportive family member, or even your therapist, about what happened. Try to be accurate, fair, and self-reflective in your account. Beginning with the intent to see your own shortcomings, as well as the other’s, is a good way to be honest and therefore effect the best healing. Remember, every bit of defensive behaviour and dishonest appraisal precludes our own healing, which is why humility is crucial to self-growth. Consider making this intent real by expressing it to whomever you vent: “I appreciate your support in my issue here, and as I accuse the other, I also want to see my part in this.”
8) Self-Reflect, Correct Thyself
As you vent, or after, stay connected with your body and humbly notice if you feel some place that calls for self-responsibility. Are you telling the truth about what happened? Do you need to learn more facts? If you are sensitive and self-reflective (which can be hard while venting, because anger obscures humble reflection), your body will subtly alert you as to when you might be biasing your story; try to notice this. Indeed, angry, defensive reactions can be a way to defend and deny the truth by making us so upset we obscure the feeling that points to a more humble truth in us.
To be honest and to correct your own story requires hearing yourself and hearing out your would-be offender, so this is an opportunity to give your ego a rest and be honest . . . and to practice the very “hearing” you want from your Mum, or whomever you are dealing with. Self-honesty helps prevent projection, which wants others to be what we are not.
9) Be the Change
It feels good to be this honest and vulnerable, even if it is a bit scary at first. It’s the ego that feels bad when we are vulnerably honest. This is to be the way that we want others to change. We all have a part in our interactions, if only by way of our reactions. Blaming others (preferably first to a friend or supportive other, or to your journal) and complaining can be helpful and even appropriate for our process (when other is also truly at fault), but until we also see our own part in these dynamics, we will cheat ourselves out of being the love and peace we want others to be.
So, engage in complaint and accusation privately, if you like, as part of the process, but make sure your assumptions are correct, be fair to the other (as we want others to be towards us), and always have the intent of settling calmly into yourself (inner peace and calm are our home-base) to take account of your own shortcomings. Being honest, if only to yourself, about your contribution is to gift yourself. This might be easier to do when you are not so upset (#3), and fact-checking (#2) helps to diminish inappropriate and inaccurate blame and anger.
10) Protect Yourself as Needed
If anyone is overtly abusive or attacking, set your boundaries and excuse yourself from their company, as needed. You are an adult now, and even if childhood wounds are triggered, you deserve the same basic respect as an adult that you did as a child. So, take care of yourself and your family. This especially applies to protecting your children, who, like you once were, are not able to fend for themselves.
11) Be Kind
Is there something you are doing or saying, even your tone of voice, that might trigger others, when you could express yourself more self-responsibly and with less believed entitlement? Did your Mum not seem to hear you because you were attacking and assumptive? Is this just really Mum’s way? Is this an old dynamic to which you contributed in the past, even though you don’t anymore, yet Mum still perceives it this way? Discovering this information can help you understand and thereby manage emotions more skillfully (another instance of mind helping our hearts).
This short list is just a template, suggesting a tone and intent for how to navigate the upsets that can come with spending intimate time with loved ones. It works for holidays and every day. If you want to set the record straight, consider rectifying yourself with some of these suggestions. If you want to give yourself and your family a real gift this year, and you think these suggestions worthy, consider enacting these suggestions to the best of your ability. That “best” will determine the depth of your gift-giving to everyone, especially yourself.
In post-modern culture, we can forget that holidays are not just about the people in our lives. In addition to providing the setting that triggers our personal emotional histories, the holidays also embody a different aspect of our past through their original function to honour natural cycles, cycles that are also mirrored inside us.
All in all, the holidays can be a nourishing, meaningful time of year. They are an auspicious time for sure, which can bring both increased good and apparent bad. Truth be told, deep down we love our family that makes us crazy. Adopting wisdom and learning techniques for how to make the difficult parts more productive is the key to maximizing your enjoyment and enrichment of this time with the people you deep-down really love.
So, this year, consider embracing the holidays with more mindfulness and skill. Make the pitfalls grist for the mill that eventually uplifts you in the new year ahead. This, after all, is also a function of the ‘holy-days’: to effect a sacred intent and healing for the ordinary days of the year ahead. This way we make it a truly new year, and what we feared and thought was the worst part of the holidays can turn out to be the best. So, walk forward with excitement, curiosity, and confidence now that you have a few extra tools in your bag to celebrate all that is. Happy Holidays to you and your family!